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Archive for November, 2014

Library Lust

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I am not one to rush towards new technology.  No one has ever accused me of being an early adopter.  I may admire new technologies and innovations, I may think them clever and even useful, but it generally takes more than that to convince me to commit to them.  I need an incentive.  This is why I didn’t get an e-reader until I discovered I could read The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim on it for free.  And it is why I didn’t join NetGalley until this summer, when I realised that by doing so I might get to read The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne months ahead of its release.  Well, I joined and I got to read it and, happily, have read a handful of other NetGalley books since.  Now, finally, I should probably get around to reviewing some of them.

9781451660548.225x225-75The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne
I am a huge fan of Browne’s novels.  They are light and funny but have heroines who I can actually identify with.  Unlike the bulk of ChickLit novels, Browne’s female characters know how to balance a chequebook, dress appropriately, and generally behave like adult human beings.  Life is difficult enough as a single woman without being saddled with an infantile intellect or a crippling shoe fetish.

Rosie, an events manager at the exclusive Bonneville Hotel in London, has all the hallmarks of a Browne-heroine: she is organized, well-mannered, and has a completely awful boyfriend.  Working towards a promotion, the last thing she needs is the appearance of laid-back Joe, the son of the hotel’s owner, who after years of travel and general surfer dude behaviour has come back to learn the ropes of the family business.  Despite being generally affable and helpful, not to mention unthreateningly charming, Rosie finds it exhausting to work with Joe, especially when he gets involved with the wedding planning portion of the hotel business, Rosie’s special domain.

Something about this didn’t quite click for me.  Browne is really good at writing about female characters and their struggles to sort out their lives.  But her male characters are often poorly fleshed out and so the romances fall a bit flat, which is what happened here.  That said, I still really enjoyed the book and liked it well enough that I bought my own copy when it was released earlier this fall.

The Rise and Fall of Great PowersThe Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
I loved Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists, and this was even better.   When we meet her, Tooly Zylberberg is in her early thirties and running an unprofitable bookstore in Wales.  Over the course of the novel, as it jumps around through her childhood and early adulthood, we learn about her unusual, globe-hopping childhood and the eccentric, rather shady, and essentially mysterious characters who raised and shaped her.  Completely wonderful and highly recommended.

At-Least-Youre-in-Tuscany-Gemelli-Press-ReviewAt Least You’re in Tuscany by Jennifer Criswell
A funny, unvarnished and honest memoir about an American woman’s life after she moves to Tuscany.  Single, struggling through Italian bureaucracy, and still with an uncertain grasp of the language, Criswell’s time in Italy is far from the sun-dappled idyll that so many other books chronicle.  And that is what makes it worth reading.  A nice reality check, reminding us that the Good Life takes some work.

In Your DreamsIn Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins
Talk about perfect timing.  My request for this, the fourth entry in Higgins’ “Blue Heron” series, was approved the night before I flew to Europe.  If there is anything nicer than having an eagerly anticipated book to read on a long plane ride it is being surprised with that book.  And I couldn’t have wished for something better to pass the hours – at least a few of them.  Sweet and funny, In Your Dreams is Higgins at her best, with a likeable heroine and a hero who actually gets to be a person in his own right.

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Devil's CubLast week was Georgette Heyer week over at Vuples Libris.  The Book Foxes mused on The Talisman Ring, Faro’s Daughter, Black Sheep, Regency Buck, and An Infamous Army.  Now, I class Heyer alongside Austen and Trollope as one of those authors who I never tire of and who I am always delighted to see discussed on book blogs, so nothing could have been more delightful to me than these posts.  It wasn’t long (I made it until Tuesday night) before I was reaching into my own extensive Heyer collection.  After a bit of a struggle, I settled on one of the few Heyer books I still had left unread: Devil’s Cub.

The hero of Devil’s Cub is Dominic Alastair, the twenty-four year old Marquis of Vidal.  He is handsome, noble, rich, and entirely reckless.  In the opening scene, he shoots and kills a footpad who was attempting to rob him while enroute to a party.  Leaving the corpse by the side of the road, Vidal continues on as though nothing of note had happened.  This is, we soon learn, not his first murder.  But what can you expect of the son of the Duke of Avon, a man once known as Satanas?

I had held off reading this book for years because I knew it was the sequel to These Old Shades.  I hate These Old Shades.  It was one of the first Heyer novels I read, if not in fact the first, and it almost put me off her for life.  It had cross-dressing, one of the most irritating heroines of all time, and a plot that requires the reader to suspend all logic.  It was one of her earlier efforts and it shows, particularly in the less-than-polished dialogue and, for Heyer, rather sloppy structure.  So, logically enough, I was not particularly eager to read a book about the next generation of this family.

Vidal, while not quite as corrupt as his father was or quite as reckless as his mother, is still very recognizably their child.  But, with a few years more experience as a novelist, I think Heyer brings this book off much better than These Old Shades.

After a drunken duel, Vidal is confronted by his father, the Duke of Avon.  With the other duellist lying gravely injured at death’s door, Vidal could soon be responsible for a third death.   The first could be excused as inconvenient and the second as self-defense against a criminal, but a third murder becomes awkward.  While there is little question of Vidal facing any legal ramifications for his actions – there are advantages to being a Duke’s son – his father demands that he leave the country.  Vidal agrees but decides that he might as well bring along the young woman he has been attempting to seduce – an association his family decidedly disapproves of.  It is fine to dally with the lower classes and have affairs among the upper echelons of society, but a bourgeois who might expect marriage is quite another thing altogether.  And Vidal certainly has no intention of marriage where this woman is concerned.

Here is where our heroine intrudes: having discovered Vidal’s intention to abscond with her silly sister, and knowing he has no intentions of marrying her, Mary Challoner decides to play a trick on the Marquis.  Except it backfires entirely and soon she finds herself in France with Vidal.  Mary had intended to save her sister’s virtue; instead, she finds herself compromised.  But Mary, well-educated, well-mannered and quick witted, is a very different creature from her sister.  While Vidal would not have quibbled to seduce and abandon her sister, he sees how impossible that would be in Mary’s case.  And then, naturally, he decides he must marry her.  It appears there are some morals hidden within his character after all.  But Mary, despite having discovered to her own surprise that she has been half in love with Vidal for some time, does not want to be forced into a marriage with him.  What follows is a typical Heyer chase, with Vidal chasing Mary, Vidal’s mother (Leonie) and Uncle Rupert chasing him, and the Duke of Avon calmly wandering along behind them all, ready to patch up the mess that they will inevitably make of everything.

There are many familiar figures from These Old Shades.  Leonie, still outrageous though now in her forties, is an adoring and indulgent mother to her reckless son and, most irritatingly, still seems a bit in awe of her husband.  Rather than discuss Vidal’s predicament with Avon, she decides to sneak away (aided, unwillingly, by her brother-in-law Rupert) and track down her son herself.  Because that is exactly what Leonie would do.  We hear rather less of how Avon feels about his wife, but any sensible person would have been driven completely mad after a couple of decades of Leonie’s devotion and rollercoaster emotions.

Still, Leonie does provide some of the best dialogue.  She is absurd but absurd speeches are the most fun to read and, I suspect, the most fun for Heyer to write.  While Avon is disapproving of his son’s excesses and scandals, Leonie is rather proud of them.  When her nephew dares to criticise Vidal, Leonie is roused to her typical sort of rage and responds with some choice insults for the young man:

To shoot a man dead: it is terrible, you say.  For you could not do it.  You could not shoot an elephant dead.  To elope with a woman: it is scandalous!  Bien entendu, but you, you could not persuade even a blind woman to elope with you, which I find not scandalous, but tragic.

The supporting characters – largely members of the Alastair family – are excellent and, rather to my surprise, I enjoyed being reunited with some of them.  I even enjoyed seeing Avon again, which I certainly didn’t expect.  The tête-à-tête between him and Mary towards the end of the novel is one of the best scenes in the entire book.

I think I have learned an important lesson, which is that the Alastair family improves with age.  I’m not sure I’ll ever like These Old Shades but Devil’s Cub won me over by the end.  I’m now feeling the itch to reread An Infamous Army, which marks the third and final appearance of the Alastair family.

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Library Lust

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credit: Elle Decor

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

 

Library Loot 1

A bit of a mixed bag this week, bookwise:

The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan – not good

The Rosie Effect – flat out bad

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – wonderful

Library Loot 2And two very, very enjoyable audiobooks:

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

The Monarch of the Glen by Compton Mackenzie

What did you pick up this week?

 

 

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Library Lust

The Artist's Private Residence, Copenhagen by Viggo Svend Madsen

The Artist’s Private Residence, Copenhagen by Viggo Svend Madsen

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The English AirI’ve just seen the very exciting news that Greyladies, one of my favourite small publishers, has reprinted The English Air by D.E. Stevenson.  This is both very wonderful and very sneaky, since there was little warning ahead of time that they would be printing it.  Still, what an excellent surprise.  I’ve already placed my order and can’t wait to have my very own copy of this, as it is one of my favourite D.E.S. novels (also a favourite of both Barb at Leaves & Pages and Lyn at I prefer reading).

With another Richmal Crompton book (Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle) slated to be reprinted in February, Greyladies continues to delight.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll continue rescuing Susan Pleydell’s books from obscurity and reprinting my favourite D.E.S. novels (Shirley, if you’re reading, Five Windows would be nice!).  Until then, I look forward to rereading The English Air and working through the rest of my Greyladies collection.

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The Politics of WashingMuch of my spare time – not that there is a lot of it right now – is spent thinking about Italy.  I’ve never been but I hope to remedy that next spring.  I want to see Florence and perhaps Rome and, most of all, Venice.  But, unlike Florence and Rome, there seems to be a scarce supply of books about Venice.  You can buy hundreds of memoirs of life in Tuscany but how many can you think of about Venice?  For that reason, I was so excited to come across The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles.

When Coles, an Englishwoman married to an Italian, moved to Venice with her family (she has four children), she already loved the city.  In this book, she chronicles the things she loves about Venice and also the things that bother her – which seems to be almost everything.

I can’t imagine Venice is an easy place to live, especially as an outsider.  Overwhelmed by tourists, Venetians aren’t exactly known for their warm welcomes.  And the city is a logistical nightmare to get around in when dry, nevermind when the waters rise.  But it is romantic, in its sad state of elegant decay, and Coles does do a good job of capturing that allure.  However, a true Venetian now, she is also very keen to keep that romance for the Venetians, jealous of all the tourists who she sees as destroying the city and its way of life.  Undoubtedly, modern tourism has had – and continues to have – a disastrous physical effect on Venice but Coles is equally worried about its effect on the Venetian people and their communities.  She talks about all of the native Venetians who have moved to the mainland, preferring to sell their Venetian homes or, more profitably, turn them into rentable properties for tourists.  Apartment buildings once full of families and locals are now overrun by an ever-changing array of tourists who roll in and out every week.  Coles is deeply frustrated by this and the impossibility of building a strongly knit local community under such circumstances.  It is an understandable position but a rather naively frustrating one.  Venice hasn’t exactly been a sleepy backwater for the last thousand or so years, only just discovered by modern tourists.  To hate that integral part of it seems to me to be a willful misunderstanding of its identity.

Already slightly put off by her general pessimism, Coles completely lost me – and often – when she began spouting aspiring-to-be-politically-correct, rather too deeply felt platitudes.  She becomes angst-ridden over the use of the formal pronoun “lei” rather than the familiar “tu” in her passing relationship with a young neighbourhood nanny:  “I hear the lei/tu distinction as an overt statement of hierarchy –of my elevated status in relation to Barbara.”  She treads a weird line between excessive tolerance and embarrassing romanticism when she talks about Venice’s gypsies: “These Rom children, whose language uses the same word to express both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ have a grip on time, a foothold in it, born of a social unity, and through that a historical continuity, of which I have no notion, to which I can only bear astonished witness.”  (I think we should all be deeply impressed that I made it past that passage.)  And she harbours dreams of a future tourist-free Venice “in which the city can become a place of artistic and artisanal excellence again and a cultural centre where people are able to live on a small, environmentally sustainable and creative scale”, a dream which rather ignores Venice’s history as a hub of commerce, culture, and, yes, tourism.  And do not get her started on the Italian school system and its quest to destroy her children’s spirits.  She is aghast that children are expected to be moulded by teachers rather than nurtured and indulged.

I think the most positive thing I can say about this book is that it has prepared me for the worst of Venice.  Perhaps that was the goal, to deter future tourists and promote Coles’ dream of a Venice for Venetians.  If so, it didn’t work on me and I still can’t wait to go.

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Library Lust

Hamish Bowles' New York home (credit: World of Interiors, November 2014)

Hamish Bowles’ New York home (credit: World of Interiors, November 2014)

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

Library Loot 1The Village Effect by Susan Pinker
Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy
The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

Library Loot 2Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay
Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

What did you pick up this week?

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