Archive for the ‘Maeve Binchy’ Category

Holiday by Harry Morley

Holiday by Harry Morley

I’m one week into my holiday and I’ve managed to read three books already that featured vacationing characters.  I feel an immediate sympathy between myself and a book when this sort of coincidence occurs, though there is also a kind of comparison that happens: is their (fictional) holiday more appealing than mine?  Would I rather be off having the kind of adventures they are having?  But I am very happy where I am right now, thank you very much, and happier still to be able to share in these fictional holidays at the same time. 

The Honey QueenI had never heard of The Honey Queen by Cathy Kelly but that’s probably because it just came out this year.  I’d never read anything by Kelly before but, if this is anything to go by, she’s very Maeve Binchy-esque and I mean that in the best possible way.  Set just outside Cork, The Honey Queen focuses on a perhaps slightly too large cast of characters and the struggles facing each of them.  The highlight is the friendly and always sympathetic Lillian.  In her sixties, Lillie was given up for adoption at birth and taken in by an Australian family.  Recently widowed, she is still coming to terms with her husband’s death when her sons discover that she has a younger brother, Seth, in Ireland.  Seth immediately invites her to visit and Lillie, a little to her surprise, finds herself agreeing to come.  Lillie and Seth’s scenes made me tear up far more often than I should probably admit but as it is the purpose of heart-warming women’s fiction to elicit such tears I felt quite satisfied.  Lillie recognizes that Seth is going through a difficult period in his marriage and does her best to take the pressure off of him and his wife, Frankie, and allow them the time to figure things out.  She’s rather Mary Poppins-like, but less severe.  But this is only one of several households featured in the novel and all of them are interesting.  There’s even a twenty-something female character who opens up a knitting and sewing shop – something I know will appeal to some of my readers!  I will definitely be looking out for more Cathy Kelly books when I get home to the library.

Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking BootsBoys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots by Abby McDonald was a surprise.  I found it while combing through the library’s e-book catalogue and, being intrigued by the blurb, downloaded this YA novel about a suburban New Jersey teenager who spends a summer with her godmother in the British Columbian Interior.

Jenna is an industrious seventeen year old who is devoted to environmental issues.  She cheerfully organizes protests and rallies, knows how to charm people into signing her petitions, and loves having equally passionate friends in her school’s Green Teen group.  With her parents heading (separately) out of town for the summer, Jenna finds herself going off to stay with her newly married godmother, Susie, in a small town in BC, where Jenna’s environmentalist beliefs clash with the reality of life in the wilderness.

Generally, my issues with romantic YA fiction overlap quite closely with my arguments against chick-lit: I can’t stand books about girls and women who spend all their time thinking about boys and how they look.  Thankfully, Jenna does very little of this and her only concern with footwear (the most annoying chick-lit cliché) is with having waterproof boots appropriate for outdoor pursuits.  Clearly, a girl after my own heart.  There are boys – they’re right there in the title – but they are Jenna’s friends before anything romantic begins to develop, the guys who take her rafting, fishing, rock climbing, and hiking.  That’s part of the real appeal of this book for me: Jenna does stuff.  A lot of stuff.  She throws herself into projects and I loved her excitement over the tourism website she and her new friends build, highlighting all the local outdoor activities, and the B&B that Susie and her husband are opening.  Jenna has her insecurities and concerns but mostly she is a confident, positive young woman with lots of energy that she’s trying to figure out how to channel.  She reminds me far more of myself as a teen than most fictional heroines do.

Nights of Rain and StarsMost recently, I reread Nights of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchy.  There’s nothing quite like a Maeve Binchy when you’re on holiday and no matter how many times I read her books I am always happy to pick them up again.  (In fact, since finishing this one I’ve started rereading Scarlet Feather, one of my favourite Binchys.)  Nights of Rain and Stars focuses on four travellers who witness a tragedy in the Greek town where they are staying.  Away from their homelands, the four characters – Thomas, David, Elsa, and Fiona – find themselves drawn to the small community as they try and escape the problems they left behind.  Thomas, an academic on sabbatical, is missing his son back in California and dreading the influence the boy’s new stepfather will have on him.  David, a quiet and sensitive young Englishman, is avoiding the parents who expect him to go into the successful family business.  Elsa, a former news presenter, is trying to escape an old lover back in Germany and Fiona, a young Irish nurse, is clinging to the ne’er-do-well boyfriend her family and friends disapprove of.  With guidance from Vonni, an Irishwoman who’s been in Greece long enough to count as a local, they slowly begin to get their lives in order and face up to the conflicts they had thought to escape.

This isn’t Binchy’s best but it is still delightful.  Cathy Kelly might be Binchy-esque but nothing beats a bona fide Binchy.  Last time I read Nights of Rain and Stars, it was the dead of winter (or, you know, possibly April) in Calgary and I remember being holed up inside while a blizzard raged outside.  This time, I read it in the sunshine, hiding under an umbrella from the hot sun.  In either climate, it was a treat.

I have only a few more days left before we begin the drive home so will hopefully get some more suitably vacation-y reading in between now and then!

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Firefly SummerI woke up Thursday morning only to be greeted by an unexpected head cold and a winter wonderland outside.  Neither of these things pleased me, head colds and snow both being messy and uncomfortable.  Thank goodness I was in the middle of reading Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy, since these are the kinds of circumstances for which her books are best suited.

Published in 1987, Firefly Summer follows the residents of the small village of Mountfern over several years during the 1960s.  Patrick O’Neill, a rich American with family roots in Mountfern, arrives with plans to buy the old estate that has been in ruins since the 1920s and build in its place a huge hotel.  After years of seeing their children and sibling emigrate overseas, the promise of jobs and of more customers for existing business thanks to the tourist trade causes all sorts of excitement in the village.  Even people like the Ryan family, who run the pub closest to the estate and stand to lose business when the hotel opens, can’t help but be excited about the changes, though they are concerned for their own future.  But the consequences of Patrick O’Neill’s hotel project turn out to be far more devastating than anyone could have dreamed and the lives of many of those in the once sleepy town where nothing ever changed are upset forever.

This isn’t Maeve Binchy’s finest book but it is still a great read and it was perfect for my cold-fuzzed brain.  While the O’Neills and the Ryans are the focus of the story – both the adults and their closely-entwined teenage children – the other villagers and a few outside characters are also wonderfully described and fleshed out, no matter how minor their role, from the tramp who merely passes through to the hairdresser who moonlights as a prostitute.  Binchy does a particularly excellent job with Patrick O’Neill.  So proud of his Irish heritage, he is determined to make his home in Mountfern though it is obvious to everyone there that he quintessentially American.  The combination of awe and contempt that greets him is perfectly done, with some villagers impressed by his confidence and wealth while others resent it heartily.  He is a good man, though not an easy one to get along with, and as he faces problem after problem, with both the project and his difficult son, it is impossible not to warm to him.

It is this balance of attractive and unattractive qualities in her characters that makes Binchy’s book so interesting to me.  Very rarely does she have anyone who is entirely perfect or entirely evil – the main weakness of this book is the almost cartoon-like villainy of Patrick’s son Kerry.   Usually, characters are a complex meld of good and bad traits.  Kate Ryan, whose husband runs one of the village’s pubs, is bright and warm and clever but can also be short-tempered and shrewish with the soft-spoken husband she adores.  Rachel Fine is a thoughtful, generous, sympathetic divorcee from New York but she is also O’Neill’s mistress and has been part of his life since before his wife’s death.  Binchy does not pass judgements on her characters and we get to see all the sides of them.

Firefly Summer may not be the best example of Binchy’s powers – it is far too long and the ending felt rushed and overly dramatic – but it is still an enjoyable book and a great example of her excellent characterization.  She also manages to deal with real tragedies in a very truthful way, marking their significance and impact on the characters without exaggerating the consequences in a melodramatic manner.   This is light fiction, certainly, but of the best and most intelligent kind.

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“Still Life with Books and Flowers” by Ethel Sands

I adore November.  It is probably my third favourite month, though I have only ever bothered to rank the top three (in case you’re wondering: 1. February, 2. April, 3. November).  Vancouverites will tell you that November is the most miserable month here, as it rains every single day and the sun never emerges.  This, I think, is what makes it so wonderful.  I get a little grumpy if the sun tries to stick around more than an hour or two a day this time of year.  There is nothing I like more than going out into the woods on a rainy day and walking about for a few hours.  And to be inside afterwards, warm and dry, curled up with a book while you listen to the rain…heaven.  The rest of the city is resentfully going into hibernation but I find myself more energetic than ever.

And I will need energy if I’m going to do what I’m thinking about doing.  I want to learn how to quilt, which would also mean having to learn how to use a sewing machine again.  I reread Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity a few weeks ago and was so drawn to the bits on quilting that I immediately placed a library hold on Jane’s The Gentle Art of Quilt-making.  I sat down with it Saturday night, planning to flip through it in front of the television but it wasn’t long before I had abandoned my show (a rerun of As Time Goes By – forgive me Judi Dench) and had focused all my attention on the book.  Now, I know next to nothing about quilting so almost everything I read was new to me and it was all enthralling.  In the introduction, Jane talks about “how much I loved quilts and how much I wanted to make one, but…I was convinced it was all rules and regulations and…I thought it would be too difficult.”  A friend convinced her that there was no need to feel intimidated and then that was that.  After a weekend course on the basics of quilting, which you better believe I am already on the lookout for in my area, off she went.

The book focuses on 15 of Jane’s quilts and the inspiration behind their designs.  Because I am a total geek and information-hungry beginner, I found the actual directions even more interesting that the stories.  I went to bed Saturday night dreaming of fabric combinations and quilt patterns.  It was all very obsessive and very wonderful.  On Sunday afternoon, still feeling inspired, I decided to root through one of our chests and pull out some of the old family quilts.

Most of the quilts we have were made by my great-grandmother during the 1930s or my grandmother during the 1950s and 1960s.  Some are falling apart and stained while others are still in perfect condition but all of them use the most amazing patterned fabrics.  These old patterns always make me think of the endpapers in Persephone books.  I found these three particularly striking:

My only other completed reading this week was done on the go – a volume of Maeve Binchy short stories read while travelling around the city by bus.  I could not have had a more appropriate book to keep me company this busy weekend since the London-set Victoria Line, Central Line stories are focused around characters who also travel by public transit.  Victoria Line was originally published in 1978 and Central Line in 1980, making this the earliest of Binchy’s work that I’ve read; until now, I had only tried her novels.  Most of the stories aren’t particularly memorable – though there are a few exceptions, mostly for the stories with more sinister tones – and all seem to revolve around women with unstable but rarely addressed romantic relationships but they were enjoyable to read and made for a pleasant way to pass the time on my travels.

I am still working away at Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim and am falling more and more in love with the heroine with every page.  It is an epistolary novel so I am reading it one letter at a time, savouring the gnädiges Fräulein’s every thought, almost all of which (in the way of von Arnim) are worth remembering.  Being the same age as Fräulein Schmidt, I particularly loved this sentiment:

Dear Mr Anstruther, — It is kind of you to want to contradict what I said in my last letter about the outward appearance of my life, but really you know I am past my first youth.  At twenty-six I cannot pretend to be what is known as a young girl, and I don’t want to.  Not for anything would I be seventeen or eighteen again.  I like to be a woman grown, to have entered into the full possession of whatever faculties I am to have, to know what I want, to look at things in their true proportions.  I don’t know that eighteen has anything that compensates for that.  It is such a rudderless sort of age.  It may be more charming to the beholder, but it is not half so nice to the person herself.

How could I not love a book with such a heroine?

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