Archive for the ‘Rosamunde Pilcher’ Category

It is no great hardship to spend a summer in Vancouver but by the start of this month I was desperate for a change of scene.  Usually, I’d be heading off to hike in the Alps at this time of year but (with only minimal sobbing over the lack of European escapes in my future) instead I went to the beautiful Okanagan region of BC.  It’s famous for sunshine, hot summers, beautiful lakes, and wineries.  My brother moved there a few years ago with his family so it also has the added draw of an adorable niece and nephew to visit.

I was there for ten days, which was a welcome break from work after an intense summer.  My days were wonderfully undemanding, fitting in a hike each morning, a swim in the lake each afternoon, plenty of socially-distanced family visits in my brother’s backyard, home-cooked dinners with the amazing local produce, and LOTS of reading.  The smoke from the horrible American forest fires only drifted up during our last couple of days so for the most part I was able to sit on the deck of the house we were staying at and alternately read and gaze out at the beautiful lake view.

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes – It’s been years since I reread any of the Walsh family books from Keyes but this one is just as good as I remembered it.  Keyes is always funny but that doesn’t stop her from addressing dark topics, in this case drug addiction.  Rachel knows she doesn’t have a drug problem but her family is insistent about checking her into a treatment centre, dragging her back to Ireland from New York city after she ends up in hospital there.  There’s not much left for her in New York anyways, just a job she’s lost interest in, a best friend who does nothing anymore but criticize her, and a boyfriend who has just broken up with her.  In treatment she has the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the stories of other patients, knowing that she’s an outsider in this world.  But of course she isn’t and her journey to realising what has happened to her life and how she’s impacted the people around her is so cleverly done.

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck – In the late 90s, Buck was running a successful pruning company in California when she decided to take a sabbatical and spend several months training with pruners in Kyoto.  It was clearly an interesting experience but Buck’s writing doesn’t particularly do it justice.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts – Absolute fluff, as is mandated for all heavy reading holidays.

Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch – This was such a disappointment to me.  I’d heard about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast last year and was certain that the story of a woman moving to Switzerland and making a garden to help her feel at home would be just right for me.  Now, I can’t think of a single expat memoir where someone has had a positive experience moving to Switzerland but usually the main criticism is that it’s a boring place to live.  Lynch finds SO many more things to criticize and seems to find the entry country rather sinister in its determination to make her feel excluded.  Her combined naivety (as far as I can tell she didn’t bother to learn anything about the country before moving there) and sense of victimhood drove me absolutely mad.  I kept hoping this would get better, but it didn’t.  Even her enthusiastic plant descriptions (of which there are not enough) weren’t enough to redeem this for me.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell – Unsurprisingly, this was truly excellent and is deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon it.  I was initially resistant, thinking myself uninterested in anything about Shakespeare but O’Farrell handles him very cleverly.  He is such a minor character that he is never even named.  It is his wife’s story and it is her grief over their only son Hamnet’s death that dominates.  We see little of Shakespeare’s own reaction – but, knowing his plays, we already know how he dealt with it.  Darlene did a much better and thorough job of articulating her thoughts so I’d recommend reading her review.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore – Back to the fluffy reading.  This is the second in Dunmore’s “A League of Extraordinary Women” series of historical romance novels focused on a group of suffragists and I thought it a great improvement over the first book.

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively – I read this for the first time back in 2016 and remembered it fondly but not, as it turned out, accurately (which is very suitable for a Lively book).  I remembered it as the story of Howard and Lucy, who meet when their plane is diverted to an African country where a coup has just occurred.  Held hostage by the new government, they find themselves – quickly, quietly, amazingly – falling in love.  And it is that story, but that only begins halfway through the book.

The first half is the story of their lives and all the quirks of fate that happened to them and others for them to eventually find themselves together in such extraordinary circumstances.  I loved it all the better for not having remembered it in detail.  Lively is always wont to muse on time and history, mischance and happenstance, and I love to watch her do it.

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – a wonderfully varied collection of children’s stories about celebrating Eid.  I especially loved the stories about a refugee camp in Greece, a boy in Toronto learning to live up to his name, and a girl who, having always been defined by her identity as the only Muslim at her school, adjusts to not being an “only” when a new student arrives.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – every vacation should feature a good family saga.  It was so satisfying to sink into Pilcher’s comfortable, genteel world and her idyllic rural Scottish setting.  She can be a very skilled writer and is especially good at slowly revealing characters’ stories, avoiding the temptation to overshare when they are introduced.  But…in the end, the female characters were so ornamental and inconsequential that it set my teeth on edge.  The only exceptions were those who were made sexless either by age or by their husband’s impotence.  They managed to be the most interesting characters, which shows what Pilcher was capable of.  But the younger women are constantly being described through the eyes of men and appraised based primarily on their appearances.  Which makes a kind of sense since they have nothing else to offer – none of them are educated or employed, even the girls in their late teens and early twenties.  The huge age gaps between couples are barely mentioned, only contributing to the feeling of separation between the genders.  For a book set in 1988, this all seems bizarre and part of a world that was already lost.  Despite the material attractions, it’s not a world I’d want to live in.

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King –  If I can’t travel abroad this year, at least I can read about those who can.  Bird and Mimi are visiting Europe to trace the postcards sent more than a hundred years before by Mimi’s uncle.  Bird and Mimi have their own identities to juggle – American-born Bird is half Cherokee and half Greek while Mimi is Canadian but introduces herself as Blackfoot, a distinction Bird reminds her that no one in Europe understands – but the most important distinction is Bird’s pessimism versus Mimi’s eternal optimism.  Bird, burnt out after years as a journalist, has fallen into a lethargy and is plagued by endless physical ailments.  He is not happy to be in Europe and reminds Mimi of this constantly:

I’m not sure why we travel.

The default response is that we travel in order to see new places, to meet new peoples, to broaden our understanding of the world.

Whereas I tend to see travel as punishment for those of us who can afford such mistakes.

I loved this far more than I expected to, finding it funny (Bird’s snarky asides and one liners are excellent) and poignant.  And the fact that the bulk of the book is set in Prague, my favourite and most familiar European city, didn’t hurt.

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Scene in Glencoe Pass, Scotland, in the Summer of 1937 by Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook

Scene in Glencoe Pass, Scotland, in the Summer of 1937 by Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook

Last weekend, with a mind weak with exhaustion after some heavy-duty studying and rather giddy at the realisation that there were no more exams left on the horizon, I settled down for some light and frivolous reading with, as is so often the case with me, a Scottish theme.  While neither Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher or Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson are destined to become great favourites, they certainly helped me unwind after a stressful period.

Winter SolsticeWinter Solstice was only my second encounter with Pilcher.  I’d read Coming Home as a pre-teen and thought it was just about the trashiest thing I’d ever read up to that point in my life.  A subsequent rereading didn’t do much to change my mind.  Still, enough of my blogging friends are fans of Pilcher that I wanted to give her another try and Winter Solstice had been recommended as a perfect winter read.  Well, it is very wintery – the story focuses on a group of troubled people who find themselves spending Christmas together in the Scottish Highlands – but I could not stand the book.  I loved the concept and the writing was bland but unobjectionable, but the characterization would have had me throwing the book across the room if I hadn’t been reading it as a library e-book – my lovely Kobo should not be punished for what I load onto it.  I hung on until the end, hoping that something might happen to redeem it but that never happened.  If anything, I only got more frustrated.  I can see how in certain moods others could find Pilcher’s writing comforting and enjoyably but she is decidedly not for me.

Apricot SkyApricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson, though not particularly inspired, was much more enjoyable.  Described by Scott as “the best approximation I’ve found of a D.E. Stevenson novel not written by Stevenson herself”, it is the story of Cleo MacAlvey, who returns to Scotland after three years working in America, and the rest of the MacAlvey family.  It is 1948 and quiet Cleo, now thirty, has been in love with Neil Garvine for the past ten years, though the dour Neil is completely oblivious to her adoration.  Their more outgoing (and altogether delightful) younger siblings – Raine MacAlvey and Ian Garvine – are about to be married and so, much to both her discomfort and her pleasure, Cleo finds herself frequently in Neil’s company, though she can’t seem to string a sensible or half-way interesting sentence together any time he is near.

Cleo is unobjectionable but I do wish she were more compelling.  Her younger nieces and nephews, who get quite a lot of the author’s attention, are quite interesting but it is her sister Raine who provided the bulk of the entertainment here.  She is bright and outgoing, happy to barge “through life without caring whether people liked her or not, and […]about as introverted as a fox-terrier puppy.”  Her blunt exchanges with her equally affable fiancé were my favourite parts of the novel and left me caring far more for them than I did for any of the other characters.

The book is overly long, full of characters who ought to be more interesting than they are, and generally lacking a sense of humour but it is all still very pleasant.  Not quite up to D.E. Stevenson level, I think, but rather more akin to the works of Susan Pleydell or Noel Streatfeild’s Susan Scarlett novels.  I wouldn’t rush out to buy one of the absurdly-priced second-hand copies but if Greyladies were to reissue it, and it would be a perfect title for them, then I would be happy to have a copy of my own.

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