Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday Review of Books: Siri Mitchell's She Walks in Beauty

She Walks in Beauty, by Siri Mitchell, had been on my to-read list for quite while, so I was delighted to find it at my local library.

Several other bloggers had enthusiastically recommended this book, and I can say it didn't disappoint at all.

The story

Clara Carter is the daughter of a wealthy physician, living on Fifth Avenue in New York City during the so-called "Gilded Age" of the late 1890's.

Although she mourns her beautiful mother, who died when she was a child, Clara is happy enough pursuing her studies with her governess and reading poetry.

In fact, she's bright and intelligent enough that her governess thinks she could get into Vassar, the college for women.

But academically-minded girls are not particularly wanted in society, and Clara had a different destiny.

She must marry. And she must marry the heir to the DeVries fortune, in particular. To that end, her studies are ended and replaced with different learning: things like which fork to use, how to communicate by using a fan, how to waltz, and most difficult of all, how to wear a corset 24/7 to whittle one's waist down from 22 inches to 18.

Clara is to be a debutante, thrust into a whirl of social obligations to which marriage is the only possible outcome.

There are complications. Her best friend, Lizzie, is her main challenger for the hand of Franklin DeVries. Added to that is the fact that Clara much prefers Franklin's younger brother--a kind, funny young man who also has a depth of spirituality that Clara hasn't seen since her mother died.

Then, Clara learns things about her father that cause her carefully-constructed world to crumble.

My Thoughts

I loved this book, and read it in a very short time because I had a very difficult time putting it down.

Siri Mitchell's writing is perfect for getting inside the mind of a young girl of that era. Her obvious in-depth research lends an effortless authenticity to the story.

Things like the corruption of New York City politics, the shameful poverty of immigrant tenement dwellers, as well as the often hypocritical and haughty world of the wealthy are among the themes that inform this truly absorbing story.

Clara's character is also faced with the question, "Does God really love me just as I am?" In a world where she has to change everything about herself, including her waist size, to please society, Clara surmises that God's unconditional love would be an extravagant gift indeed.

I'm participating today in Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books--click the icon for more information!


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Review of The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen with notes by David M. Shaphard

The Annotated PersuasionThe Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not long before Borders closed in my town, I made a stop there, hoping to find a wealth of classic literature for a fraction of the price. As it turned out, there was very little left in the way of classic literature by the time I got there. However, there were pretty paperback versions of Jane Austen's "Persuasion" and "Mansfield Park," so I snapped them up.

Then I found the Annotated Persuasion at my local library. As a result, it's taken me twice as long to read the book, because I've been utterly fascinated by the comments and explanations on the opposite page of every page of Austen's writing.

I've read other books by Austen and enjoyed them immensely, but the annotated version of this book so enhanced my reading experience, opening up a window to an era so different from ours.

Yes, I'm just curious enough to like knowing the difference between a curricle, a barouche-landau and a chaise-and-four--and sometimes it sheds light on the meaning of what the characters are saying.

I've never quite understood the difference in addressing the wife of a baronet, the daughter of an earl, or the younger daughters of any of them! The annotations explain all that.

And without explanation, I think it's hard for us 21st-century readers to grasp just how rigid were the rules of society in the early 18-hundreds. Suppose, as a woman, you wanted to let your ex-boyfriend know that you still had feelings for him. You couldn't even write him a letter to let him know of your feelings!

The story

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, a sweet, lovely young woman who had, eight years ago, been "persuaded" to break up with the love of her life, Captain Wentworth.

Basically, Anne had listened to bad advice, and she lived to regret it. She never got over Captain Wentworth, but figured he was out of her life forever.

And then, through a change of circumstances, he shows up in her circle of acquaintance, and they are thrown together repeatedly.

Does the captain still have feelings for Anne? Did she break his heart too badly for him to try with her again?

It all plays out in inimitable Austen style, complete with snobbish and vain relatives, scheming social-climbers and dashing cads.

Taking to Bath

The main setting for the book is Bath, England, a place where Austen lived at one point and often visited, and her familiarity with the town is obvious throughout the book. Actual street names and place names are used, and the annotations clue the reader in on all of them.

The book whetted my curiosity about Bath, which boasted hot springs where people went to "take the waters." Apparently, Austen never really liked the town, but her name has been honored with a Jane Austen Centre and a city walk.

What did I think?

I enjoyed the story very much, and as always when reading Austen, I'm struck with her understanding of human nature--and with the fact that, despite changing mores and modern technology, human nature really hasn't changed at all.

Oh, and I dare you not to be moved by one of the most romantic love letters in fiction. Who wouldn't be moved if someone told you, "You pierce my soul"!

And I heartily recommend reading this annotated version, especially if you're a true Austen lover. It's almost like taking a mini-college course in the customs and culture of the era of which she writes.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Review of 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had heard of this little book so often, and it had been on my to-read list for so long, I finally sought it out at the library and read it in one sitting.

The book is a true story, written in "epistolary" other words, in the form of letters back and forth between a young Manhattan scriptwriter and a secondhand bookshop in London, starting in 1949 and spanning 20 years.

It's really amazing how much of Helene's personality comes through in her letter-writing. Her feistiness and irrepressible sense of humor dance through every letter she writes to Marks and Company. She can't resist teasing the somewhat restrained Frank Doel, who is the main corresponder from the bookstore.

As months and years pass, though, the relationship between Hanff and the bookstore staff grow into much more than a business relationship. Early on, when she realizes they're suffering from postwar food shortages, Hanff starts sending them much-appreciated care packages. Her warmth and generosity open up a world of friendship.

The book vividly illustrates how people on opposite sides of the world can reach out to each other and become real friends, despite the fact that they don't actually get to see each other. And how cool that it was happening even before the days of e-mail and instant messaging!

Given my love of bookstores and all things English, reading this little book was definitely worth the short time I spent reading and enjoying it.

Spoiler Alert: The story ends after the sudden death of Frank, who Helene never got to meet. It made me sad that Hanff didn't fulfill her long-time promise of visiting her friends in England until after her friend Frank had died. However, she later did make it across the pond to meet Frank's wife Nora and his daughters, with whom she had also become great friends.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Let me tell you about Bookfessions

I recently discovered a Tumblr blog that's obviously written by someone who is a kindred spirit to me, when it comes to all things books and reading.

It's Bookfessions...and it mainly consists of numbered thoughts and sayings about the author's love of books and reading.


Here are just a few Bookfessions. Head over to her blog (this link will take you to a full archive), and if you're like me, prepare to relate to and identify with almost everything!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mindy Starns Clark's Secrets of Harmony Grove

Secrets of Harmony GroveSecrets of Harmony Grove by Mindy Starns Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was delighted to find this book at the library, since I've loved other books by Mindy Starns Clark--particularly her Million Dollar Mysteries, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

This is essentially a good book, but I have to say I struggled with it a bit--thus only giving it three stars.

This is one of those cases where I have to give part of the blame to my frame of mind, distractions, etc. The book is well-written and has an intriguing plot.

Still, I found it almost confusing at times...there was SO much going on.

Sienna is an up-and-coming Philadelphia advertising executive, on the cusp of spectacular success, when she comes into work one day to face a complete shocker.

Then a shady ex-boyfriend contacts her from the Lancaster B & B they earlier renovated together, in a phone call that's so bizarre, she heads out to the B & B, only to find a murder and two unconscious people.

Sienna and her boyfriend, Heath, stay at the B & B to try to help authorities figure out what's going on--and how it all ties into her late grandfather and his obsession with a grove memorializing his deceased wife. And especially, the priceless diamonds that may be buried in that grove.

I liked the heroine, Sienna--like other heroines of Clark's, she is feisty, intelligent, and knows how to protect herself. I also like the spirituality Clark doesn't try to hide in her books--Sienna's faith plays an important part in this book.

One of the few criticisms I have is that, in lengthy conversational narratives, the characters often sound like they're reading or writing rather than actually talking. That and the fact that there were so many layers to the story, it occasionally seemed like too much.

Overall, this was a good book, and I would actually recommend it to people who enjoy mysteries.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 12, 2011

Teaser Tuesday: Secrets of Harmony Grove, by Mindy Starns Clark

I'm participating today in "Teaser Tuesday," hosted by Should Be Reading!

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

-Grab your current read
-Open to a random page
-Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser:

She and I walked along in silence until I said, "I made a big mistake here, Liesl. I was busy with my job in Philadelphia and didn't pay attention to this place. I trusted Floyd--and Troy--and now I'm in a mess."
The book is a murder mystery called Secrets of Harmony Grove, by Mindy Starns Clark...and so far, I'm loving it...I'm turning pages like mad!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday Review of Books: Diane Noble's The Betrayal: Brides of Gabriel Book Two

Having read and been very moved by the first book in this series (my review here), I was delighted to find The Betrayal: Brides of Gabriel Book Two, by Diane Noble, at my local library.

It's not a very big book, and I had it read in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

This book is just as engrossing, just as compelling, as the first one.

The first book focused on Lady Mary Rose Ashley, who fell madly in love with Gabriel MacKay aboard an America-bound ship. They married and were converted to Mormonism.

How would you like it if you married someone, both of you deeply in love, planning to spend the rest of your lives together--and your husband decided to add another wife to the mix?

This is what happened to Mary Rose in Book One, and the pain and devastation were made worse by the fact that Wife Number 2 was her very best friend.

Bronwyn's viewpoint

Book 2 is mainly from the viewpoint of Wife Number 2, Bronwyn. At first, I didn't like this. But it's to Diane Noble's credit that I came around to understanding and even liking Bronwyn.

Now, there's a third wife in the mix--Enid, who was Gabriel's teen-aged sweetheart. Enid is determined to supplant both Mary Rose and Bronwyn in wifely status and in Gabriel's heart.

Along with the very real problems of three women married to one man, matters heat up to a dangerous degree for the Latter Day Saints.

Bronwyn and Mary Rose are appalled by the increasing practice of marrying off very young girls to very old men, as well as the Saints' new creed of "blood atonement"...literally killing people they consider apostates, or people opposed to Mormon doctrine.

It becomes clear that in order to save their combined family from danger--and because they are both now repudiating objectionable Mormon doctrines, thus targeting themselves as apostate--they have to make plans to flee.

Gabriel makes me mad

I've got to admit, I can't bring myself to like Gabriel very much.

Although he does it all in the name of his understanding of God's will, it's got to be a pretty cushy gig for a man to keep adding beautiful women to his harem.

These books further illustrate the fact that, although it may be cool for the man, women were simply not created to share a man. A woman needs to know that she alone is the focus of her husband's love and devotion. I cannot, under any conceivable circumstances, imagine sharing my husband with another woman!

Compelling read

Noble refrains from any blanket condemnation of the Latter Day Saints, but she doesn't stint on depicting the faults and excesses of some of the early Mormon hierarchy. That would probably be difficult for a modern-day Mormon to read.

But this book was compelling and absorbing from start to finish--one of the best I've read all year.

I haven't heard if there's going to be a Book 3, but I certainly so! I believe the stories of Gabriel and his wives still have a lot to be told.

I'm participating today in Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books!


Friday, September 9, 2011

How a strict British teacher nurtured my love of reading

As I've mentioned before, my parents were missionaries in Beirut, Lebanon, for a couple of years when I was a little girl in the mid-60s. For twelve months--the last part of 3rd grade and all of fourth grade--I attended a British school called Manor House. (The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hung in the school's lobby.)

I recently dug up some things I wrote reminiscing about my time there. Here you go:

Miss Gardiner

My second year at Manor House (I was in the fourth grade) started out calmly enough--until our new teacher from England arrived--Miss Gardiner.

Miss Gardiner terrified and awed me. She was stern, strict, overly puritanical in my opinion, and unkind. My classmates shared my terror of the large old lady with the iron-gray hair worn in a braid encircling her head and a round, bespectacled face.

I remember how it annoyed me when, after lunch, she would clean her teeth with her tongue. How she terrified me when she hit my best friend, Nadia Nash, for cheating!

Nadia was part Lebanese, part British, and spoke with a delightful French accent. Her mother was a popular French and music teacher at Manor House, and we were the best of school friends. I shared her tears over the humiliating corporal punishment Miss Gardiner had administered to her.

I was fond of reading books, which I kept on my lap away from Miss Gardiner's eyes. So you can imagine my horror when she punished Serena McClelland for doing that very thing! Serena was the beautiful child of Scottish missionaries. I admired her silky blond hair, fair skin, pink cheeks and blue eyes, and it hurt my very soul when she cried.

Math--what awful memories that word conjures! The students were far ahead of me in that area, and it seemed I couldn't grasp any but the simplest principles. Most of the morning lessons were devoted to math, so after lunch I could more or less relax.

Reading time

At this time I could sit in my class and listen to Miss Gardiner read. She was constantly reading aloud to us, and it was the only part of her teaching that I enjoyed.

She read to us of the history of Britain, and I was fascinated by the kings and queens--a fascination that continues to this day. She read Greek mythology and classic literature.
So I profited from Miss Gardiner's teaching after all. She helped instill and nurture in me a love of literature that grew steadily.

Manor House seemed like an odd school to me, but I know that much of what I am today was influenced by my time there. I've no doubt that my Anglophilia--love of all things British--took root at that time, and has never left me.

My fifth grade was spent at American Community School, almost an exact replica of a Hometown USA school. It was fun and interesting, but not nearly as much of a really different experience as was Manor House School.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A historical novel that rambles a bit too much...

Lady of HayLady of Hay by Barbara Erskine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up at 60 per cent off at the Borders' going out of business sale, for two reasons: I love historical novels, I love BIG juicy novels, and because of the rave reviews on the back cover--including the ubiquitous designation (yes, I've used it too) of "unputdownable."

Well, Lady of Hay wasn't a bad book. In fact, it was well written and well-researched, and I did care about the main character, Joanna.

And though I love big books, I believe this one suffered from being TOO big.

Not only was it putdownable, I found myself almost grudgingly picking it up again, as if it was a school assignment and not something I was just reading for pleasure.

It's about a modern-day woman who submits to hypnosis, revealing that she was a baron's wife in the 12th century. As the regressions become more in-depth and frightening, Joanna realizes that her past life has become inextricably--and dangerously--intertwined with her present life.

Yep, you have to swallow the whole "past life" thing, but this IS fiction, so I'm OK with suspending disbelief.

However, I found myself getting a little impatient with the lengthy narratives that took place when Jo "regressed" into her past life character, Matilda...and I even started skimming a bit, which is something I try never to do when I read a book.

Honestly, if it were edited down to roughly half its current size, I honestly think it would have been a terrific book. It's a compelling story about a fascinating woman who really existed.

It's just...too long.

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