Category Archives: Adult

The American Heiress

What is a girl to do while waiting for Season 3 of Downton Abbey? (Because it’s going to be a looong wait people… a long wait). Well I have something that might make the time pass a shade more quickly. Daisy Goodwin’s debut, The American Heiress, could not have come at a better moment. I’ve watched Seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey enough that the hubs will have nothing more to do with it. The American Heiress is made for pining Downton fans, and it is deliciously rich in historical detail, drama, and romance. It oozes atmosphere.

Speaking of atmosphere, I think this review could use a little background music:

Better?

(I must mention that I recently entered the 21st century and got an iPhone. Do I need to tell you what my ringtone is? Let’s just say that Downton imbues even the most ordinary phone call with serious drama. It’s important to make your own fun in this life).

Goodwin’s book introduces us to Cora Cash, an incredibly wealthy American heiress whose mother will stop at nothing to get her daughter married to a Brit with a title. She imagines Cora as a duchess and she soon finds a way to make it happen. After a courtship so speedy it’s nearly indecent, Cora gets married to a handsome and highly eligible duke and becomes the Duchess of Wareham overnight. Naturally, hers is far from a simple marriage and everything quickly turns messy and secretive and page-turny. Cora discovers that her money can accomplish a great deal but it cannot secure happiness. She must depend on her ingenuity and American spunk to navigate the tricky waters of English society.

It’s a pleasure to read a book that is in the end, all about fun. It reads like Goodwin had a good time writing it and you feel like you are meant to just soak up the stylish details and the scandal and enjoy being entertained. It’s lush and evocative. You can really see the world that Goodwin describes. I’d say that it’s light on the downstairs drama, which sets it apart from Downton in one respect. However, there’s plenty of betrayal and many hidden agendas upstairs to keep you interested, so not to worry. With such a strong sense of place and a main character who is spirited and complex enough to be memorable, I’d say that The American Heiress will more than satisfy your longing for a little more Downton. Perfect reading when your hubby has gone out for the night and you are home alone with a cat and a box of bonbons. Seriously, I speak from experience.

The American Heiress is published by St. Martin’s Press.

Perfect Witchy Combo

physickwitchchild

Saturday is one of the best nights of the year in my neighborhood: Halloween. It’s the best because my street is one of the premium attractions in the city (in my unbiased opinion) due to the fact that six houses down from us is a full-on Halloween-inspired musical production staged on the front lawn. Each year it’s a different theme, but the show always has lights, sound, costumes, a stage, backdrop and usually a giant screen attached to the front of the second storey of the house. A bunch of families on the street get together to put on the show, so there are kids and adults involved and it’s always hilarious. They do about 4 shows throughout the night and the street is basically shut down to traffic the crowd gets so big. Since we’re so close, we get a lot of trick-or-treaters. A lot. Like 250+ a lot. It’s great. For us it’s pizza and mini chocolate bars on the porch with friends who bring pumpkins so that we end up with a whole bunch glowing up and down our front steps.

Inspired by the year’s spookiest holiday, I present two witchy reads that I delighted in over the summer: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, and Witch Child by Celia Rees. I had read Rees’ book before, and loved it, so this time I thought I’d get the audiobook for something different. Can I tell you how excited I was when I found out that it is narrated by Jennifer Ehle? (If you don’t know why that is exciting, then I’m guessing you’ve never watched this, say, 5 times. Go. Watch). I ended up listening to the one while reading the other, which was perfect, and I highly recommend this approach if you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in all-things witchy this Halloween.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is an adult title, but I think it has some crossover potential with the right, academically-inclined sort of teen. It has a past/present structure that I often find appealing, when it’s handled well. In the present the story centres around Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin, who is just about to choose a subject for her doctoral dissertation and then spend the summer researching. Her mother asks her to take care of selling her grandmother’s old house close to Salem, and when Connie arrives at the run-down place, she finds herself falling under its spell. She discovers a key hidden in an old Bible and inside the key is a small piece of parchment with a name written across it: Deliverance Dane. Connie begins investigating and as she learns more about this mysterious woman she wonders if there are ties that bind her to Salem in ways she had never imagined. She begins hunting for a book that she believes belonged to Deliverance – a physick book containing secrets, both medical and spiritual, of days long gone. Set against the present day narrative is the story of Deliverance and her family and their struggles as they get caught up in the witch trials of the 1690s.

This is a good book to cosy down with on an afternoon when you don’t have anything to do (because I know we’ve all got lots of afternoons like that, right?), preferably a chilly afternoon involving a couch, a blanket, a cat and a cup of tea. It will draw you in and Howe creates an atmosphere of mystery right from the start. The descriptions of the grandmother’s old house, almost completely closed off from the world by vines and ivy and garden, are especially vivid. I thought it was an interesting and innovative idea to approach this oft-used historical period from the perspective that witchcraft may indeed have been real, just not in exactly the way you might imagine. Two tiny complaints in an otherwise completely enjoyable read. First, the sections of the book set in the 1680s and 90s felt outweighed by the narrative in the present day. At times, I was frustrated that more attention and length wasn’t given to the plot thread in the past, since it was sometimes more compelling than the events with Connie. I found myself flicking ahead to see when the next “past” section was coming up. Also, I felt like it took too long for Connie to find the physick book, almost to the point that the tension dissipated. I can see why Howe might have chosen to delay, but there was some lag in the momentum about 3/4 of the way through the book. Overall, a moody, semi-suspenseful look at a popular historical period, with a new angle that will make you rethink the witch trials.

Witch Child is the perfect teen warm-up for Deliverance Dane, in the way that it presents witchcraft as a real practice, but not a devilish one. Mary Nuttall witnesses her beloved grandmother hung as a witch and then a mysterious and beautiful woman whisks her away from this nightmare to safety. The woman has arranged for Mary to travel to the New World, where she will become a part of a community of Puritans. Too bad those Puritans aren’t any keener on witches than the English folk Mary left behind. It really is too bad, because Mary is a witch. She admits to it. When she arrives in the New World she ends up in Salem and she learns that keeping her power secret is as difficult and important as ever. I found Witch Child to be completely gripping (you might say, bewitching… ha ha). It is in diary format, bringing you right inside Mary’s thoughts and point-of-view and Rees’ writing is evocative. I like it when you find a character in historical fiction who feels somehow contemporary in her perspective and concerns, but who remains true to the period. I suggest reading it and then listening, the way I did. Jennifer Ehle’s performance is exceptional. Too bad she hasn’t recorded the sequel.

There is a sequel to Witch Child, called Sorceress, but I haven’t read it for some time. Maybe I’ll get my hands on it before tomorrow. Perfect reading for when the candy runs out and we close down shop for the night.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is published by Voice. Witch Child is published by Candlewick (paperback edition).

Adult books: one yummy, one lovely

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It’s been months since I’ve picked up an adult book, and I decided to ease my way back into a little “grown up reading” with two titles that have been on my list for ages, both of them pitched just right for early summer reading. (I don’t see either of these titles as having real crossover potential, but I’m still allowed to review them because I make the rules!)

Julie and Julia is a fun, “imagine yourself in this situation,” true story about Julie Powell’s crazy year spent making every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking from yummy desserts to stomach-churning dishes like poached eggs in aspic. Stuck in her life, and terribly disappointed in herself for feeling that she hadn’t achieved much of note in her thirty years, Powell decided to start this project to inject purpose into her days. What began on a whim ended up taking over Powell’s life and changing it for the better (the life changing happened after making it through the aspic chapter in MtAoFC). I picked this book in part because I’m into food writing, and also because of the upcoming film starring the adorable Amy Adams as Powell and the perfectly-cast Meryl Streep as Child. Take a look at the trailer:

If you are even a little bit obsessive in nature (ahem), and if you fancy yourself a foodie, you will probably find yourself envying Powell’s inspired/deranged idea. You will certainly find some laughs in her book, and she writes with a feisty honesty that appealed to me. Just a note – it seems that some people really hated Powell’s book, calling it boring / poorly written / self-absorbed and I can’t say that I agree. I’m thinking that said people were just jealous of the all of the attention Powell won through blogging about the project. Julie and Julia was entertaining and it made me want to spend more time cooking this summer. It made me think about why some people cook, and how the type of foods we cook define us.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is every bit as lovely as everyone is telling you. It follows the experiences of a writer, Juliet Ashton, who by chance, comes to know a group of Guernsey inhabitants who share with her their stories of the years of German occupation. She travels to the island to research her next book, and when she gets there, she finds much more than she expected. I’ll just chime into the chorus of praise. Here are all of the things I love about it:

1) It’s an epistolary novel (love them love them love them!). Do I need to explain this? Consider a few other epistolary novels worth cheering about: Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn), Feeling Sorry for Celia (Jaclyn Moriarty), A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (Valerie Zenatti), 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff).

2) The tone is warm and quite often humorous, and you’ll put it down with a sigh of contentment, but the authors (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows) reveal the horror of the war in numerous short scenes and tales throughout the novel, so that I’d say the overall effect is more poignant than heartwarming.

3) It’s a book about books – why they matter, our relationships to and with them, how they can bring people together.

I enjoyed every page. Read it if you haven’t already. I’m guessing it will find a place on your shelf of favourites.

Don’t “ewe” want it too?

Yesterday I was at the local bookshop trying to be good (“No books for you, only for Dad. No books for you, only for Dad…”). I came across this:

A sheep detective story? Quel genius! The premise: a flock of sheep works to discover who killed their shepherd. There is only one word for this: awesome. Then, just as I was about to put the book down and step away from temptation, I saw that in the lower corner of every page there was a comic-like drawing of a friendly sheep, creating the coolest frolicking sheep flipbook as a delightful bonus. Somehow, in spite of the glory of the ovine flipbook, I found strength and wrote the title into my little wish list book and grumped off.

I want it. You’ll want it too, I think. Read this interview of author Leonie Swann in the meantime.

 

A Thousand Splendid Suns

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Well… here it is then. My first review of an adult book. I feel as if I’m sullying my kids-lit-only blog, but fear not, I’m planning to bring it all back to children’s lit at the end. I offer this review because A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of the titles I selected for my list for the Expanding Horizons Challenge over at Book Nut.

Set in Afghanistan in the years preceding the Taliban, A Thousand Splendid Suns traces the experiences of two women, Laila and Mariam, as they are buffeted through chaotic years of war in their country. A bookselling friend of mine described it to me as “a Kite Runner for women” and I’ve heard and read many similar descriptions since, for Hosseini has focused this work on the lives of women during this recent harsh period in Afghanistan’s history. The novel begins with Mariam’s youth and later we meet Laila. Eventually, the lives of these two women become entangled, resulting in blessings and tragedy.

I heard Hosseini interviewed, and he explained that the focus of his novel was not so much political, but it was to look at the life of his characters. This is indeed the case. I find his writing old-fashioned. It’s really about the story more than anything else. Some characters are not as nuanced as others and I did find myself reading with a certain expectation for the next horribly sad event to unfold. He is a direct writer. You won’t find a lot of surprising descriptive passages in this novel. The New York Times calls his style “melodramatic,” and “black and white” and there’s something true in these observations.

This being said, every so often I like a read that is simply satisfying, that doesn’t push me too much, but that is still worthy and in some measure, thought-provoking or instructive. A Thousand Splendid Suns is this sort of story. Where Hosseini’s book becomes more than this, is in the portrayal of the friendship between Laila and Mariam. This is achieved with complexity and subtlety, and is the strength and heart of the story. As for the book serving what I see as the purpose of this challenge (to offer you a meaningful glimpse into the history and culture of another country), I think A Thousand Splendid Suns achieves this completely. You see inside the constant struggle for survival of many Afghan women. It’s one way to lend humanity to the news stories.

I said I’d bring it all back to children’s lit, right? Well that’s pretty easy to achieve. I’ve decided that whenever I present an adult book for review, I will offer a Companion Read for Kids.

So, while mom and dad are reading 51f2xhsxahl_ss500_.jpg ,

the kids should try 511jc797gkl_ss500_.jpg

Deborah Ellis’s novel, The Breadwinner, is as close to Hosseini’s novel as you could get, in a form appropriate and accessible to children. Imagine the conversations that might be had around the dinner table…