Tag Archives: romance

Of Love and Other Wars – Sophie Hardach – 6/10

“I hope I would have the faith and strength of mind to peacefully resist and dissuade him.”

of love and other wars-1

Quaker brothers Charlie and Paul Lamb are caught up in the pacifist movement, then called to account for their actions when they register as conscientious objectors. For Paul’s girlfriend Miriam Morningstar, his actions are less palatable – and Miriam’s mother has plenty of her own demons to face.

This *really* picked up towards the end. I posted a few weeks ago that I wasn’t very enthused about this? Well, by the end it still didn’t make my list of favourites but I broke through and finished it. (the fact that I had to break through to finish it is perhaps not the biggest compliment towards the book…) But suddenly it all got much more interesting – the strands started to come together, the end of the war was in sight.

Paul Lamb was by far the more sympathetic brother – Charlie is rambunctious and impetuous and a little too clever for his own good, convinced of his actions to run his life however he likes with little thought for others. Paul is much more gentle, more secure in his faith but less able to articulate it intelligently. Miriam is confident and likeable and impassioned – a pleasant blend of the two brothers. In the alternative timeline, I felt I should like Esther (as a fellow young female physicist from a specific minority religion – or at least I used to match all those adjectives), but she comes across as so hard and with so little love for her husband, so little rationality behind some of her personal interactions, that I found it very hard to support her perspective. I think I’d have enjoyed this a lot more if I had identified with one or more of the characters, but I found them all rather remote.

Obviously I didn’t live through WWII London but this felt pretty credibly set – the geography seemed to flow (although they are areas of London that I don’t know that well) and the time was vivid – particularly Miriam’s experiences in wartime London and Charlie’s life on the farm.

This is the first novel I’ve come across addressing life from either a Quaker or pacifist perspective, and I was quite surprised to find it was written by a German who had little experience of either in her personal life – it’s a very unusual perspective to take.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Additional information:
Copy kindly supplied by the publisher in return for an honest review. 
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 376 paperback pages
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The People in the Photo – Hélène Gestern – 9/10

“Our families’ silence is a poison that infects everything it touches: our dreams, our fears, our entire adult lives. And it leaves us with nothing but questions to fall back on, thirty or forty years down the line.”

people in the photo

From the blurb, because it’s very accurate: Parisian archivist Hélène takes out a newspaper advert seeking information about her mother, who died when she was three, and the two men pictured with her in a photograph taken at a tennis tournament at Interlaken in 1971. Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, responds: his father is one of the people in the photo. More letters and more photos pass between them as they embark on a journey to uncover the truth their parents kept from them. But will the images and documents from the past fill the silences left by the players?

The author has given the protagonist her own first name – when that happens, I do have to wonder if it is partly autobiographical (although Hélène is a very pretty name!). Hélène is well captured – gentle, curious, reflective, desperate to unearth her truth but loath to upset others. Obviously a sad childhood. I struggled a little more with Stéphane and actually preferred him when he cracked a bit every now and again. The epistolary style, in a sense, permits very limited development of any other characters, but then the whole book is about piecing together people from several decades ago and Nataliya is revealed little by little. Jean Pamiat, the side-lined friend, is actually my favourite character in the whole book, I think. He’s deliciously omnipresent, and thankfully still alive in the modern time for our detectives to at least visit.

I’ve said it before – I love the epistolary novel. It permits gentle development of the story (and the sub-story – just the right way to deliver that) without being slow. Had it been told another way I might well have thrown the book aside in frustration with the romance and the clunky delivery of the decades-old mystery – but this method was natural and elegant.

For me, the aspect I walk away with is the incredible sadness of the ending. The climax is correctly paced and the puzzle is appropriately concluded, including various characters’ odd behaviour, but this tale of love lost, found and lost again is really very sad in the end. Our characters put a brave face on it but… I would not be so sanguine.

It made me want to learn Russian! And mourn the lost art of the letter. I greatly enjoyed the adventures of Bourbaki the cat as told by Hélène – and the sub-story, which I cannot reveal for spoiler-avoidance reasons, is sweetly developed in the letters.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Gallic Books, 265 paperback pages
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I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith – 9/10

(NB it’s at least 18 months since I read this book, so… this review might be a bit flaky)

“‘What did you want a lion for?’ I asked. ‘Oh, they were kind of cute,’ he said vaguely. Then the kettle boiled and we took the tea in.”

I capture the castle

This book has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Thus we’re introduced to the zaniness that is Cassandra Mortmain’s life – a creative soul dying to see the grandeur of London, to be able to spend the money their accommodation boasts of, and to escape her equally desperate older sister, “fadingly glorious stepmother Topaz” (I can’t say it better than the blurb) and her depressed, stifled father. When the American heirs to the castle in which they live (the aforementioned expansive accommodation) turn up to claim their property, Cassandra’s life is turned upside-down – and not just because she’s head over heels in love.

The characters are what make this novel. Dimming beauty Topaz, slightly crazy but somehow holding the family together and keeping a roof overhead. Rose, desperate to escape the idyllic country exile, rushes into the first opportunity that presents itself, and is left plenty of time to repent. She’s an unusual first child (I have a certain sympathy for the birth-order psychology which appears popular these days) but certainly is headstrong and independent. I can’t figure out the Father character, but maybe that’s not necessary – it’s enough that he’s eccentric and creatively stifled and depressed and manic all at once. The conflict underpinning the plot is brought about by his inability to generate income as a writer – one of the saddest passages in the book is when Cassandra notes that she has seen him simply re-reading detective novels after a very short period of time, because the librarian knows he isn’t working and won’t give him more than one or two a week.

The writing: well, Dodie Smith writes children’s literature beautifully, we know that, and it’s just as unblemished here.

“And the feel of the park itself was most strange and interesting – what I noticed most was its separateness; it seemed to be smiling and amiable, but somehow aloof from the miles and miles of London all around. At first I thought this was because it belonged to an older London – Victorian, eighteenth century, earlier than that. And then, as I watched the sheep peacefully nibbling the grass, it came to me that Hyde Park has never belonged to any London – that it has always been, in spirit, a stretch of the countryside; and that it thus links the Londons of all periods together most magically – by remaining for ever unchanged at the heart of the ever-changing town.”

The romance is of course all tangled up and full of misunderstandings, as any book with a teenage protagonist should be. I still think that it should have turned out differently (without spoilers, but if you’ve read it you know what I’m thinking should have happened), but all in all perfectly satisfactory at the end.

A wonderfully beautiful book. Should be mandatory reading. It is testament to the book’s depth that Mini-Me, The Book Accumulator, The No Longer At All Resident Cousin and I have all absolutely adored it. I must re-read it.

Additional information:

Origin unknown. It was just on the shelf.
Publisher: Vintage Classics, 408 paperback pages 
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The River of No Return – Bee Ridgway – 5/10

“Julia sat beside her gradfather’s bed, holding his hand. The fifth Earl of Darchester was dying.”

river of no return

To call this plot convoluted is an understatement. Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, cheats death on a battlefield in Spain in 1812 by jumping nearly two hundred years into the future. He accustoms himself to life as a New York socialite and cheese farm patron, until the Guild demands their pound of flesh and sends him to confront his 19th century past. Meanwhile, when the ancient Earl of Darchester dies leaving his teenage granddaughter estate-less, and the evil cousin turns up to take over things, well… it gets messier.

It’s been a while since I read this, and the difficulty I am having in remembering anything about it belies the enjoyment of reading it. Or perhaps that’s exactly it – it’s frothier than The Time Traveller’s Wife, with a less random mechanism of time travel, and a much larger world construct which makes considerably less sense. In essence it is a love story with one protagonist struggling across the centuries and an epoch-old conflict to find the other. There is an abundance of amusing note-taking on current and past cultures, particularly class and gender structures.

But in the end, nothing is resolved, and the characters are boilerplate romance standards – she is beautiful and independent but hamstrung by the conventions of the time, he is handsome and dashing and sensitive etc.

It was only as I googled for a picture of the cover to insert into this review that I discovered that the title of the book is the name of a Western film starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. I assume that the allusion is intentional, but I cannot figure out why.

Borrow, read on a plane, leave on the plane.

Copy kindly provided by LoveReading.co.uk and the publisher in return for an honest review, so long ago that I have given up ever reviewing it for LoveReading.
Publisher: Penguin, 546 pages (hardback).
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Attachments – Rainbow Rowell – 9/10

“If our foremothers could hear us, they would regret winning the sexual revolution.”

Rainbow_Rowell_Attachement

This book is just too adorable. Beth, movie reviewer:

“And period dramas should only star Colin Firth. (One-star upgrade for Colin Firth. Two stars for Colin Firth in a waistcoat.)”

and Jennifer (columnist of some variety):

“I knowingly got involved with a guy who plays the tuba. Finish the story.”

are bored at work and send one another spectacular email chains, totally flaunting their company’s policy about personal use of the email system. These brilliantly smart women brought joy into my day with their irreverent chatter. Meanwhile, Lincoln, lonely IT guy tasked with monitoring email and not much else…

“He spent the rest of the night archiving and compressing files, just to spite Greg. (Even though Greg would never notice that the work was done, let alone that it was done spitefully).”

monitors the emails, and likes them too much to issue the warning that he really should. I was less of a fan of Lincoln’s, but I suspect that is because he had less opportunity to be vivacious and pithy in writing.

There isn’t that much of a plot, but it’s not necessary because the writing is so funny and sweet. When I was in Denver, I visited the Tattered Cover bookstore and bought a little tin of Book Darts, mostly because I wanted a souvenir. I used so many of them in this book, there are stacks of funny quotes.

“I don’t know if I even believe in that anymore. The right guy. The perfect guy. The one. I’ve lost faith in ‘the’.

How do you feel about ‘a’ and ‘an’?

Indifferent.

So you’re contemplating a life without articles?

And true love.”

It passed the “get home, march upstairs and finish reading the book, forgetting to eat dinner or look at the clock” test. It’s that charming.

“Why are you lying awake, thinking that you’re a terrible person?

To keep my mind occupied when I can’t sleep. Some people count sheep. I self-loathe.”

There are a few character trials, enough for drama and development, but in the best tradition of romcoms, everything turns out ok.

“If civilisation comes crashing down at midnight, the last thing I’d want is to be stuck in my apartment, living off bottled water and canned beans.”

It’s just lovely. Buy it.

Additional information:

Copy borrowed from the library and sadly returned.
Publisher: Orion, 323 pages (hardback)
Order Attachmentsfrom Amazon*
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Meet Me At The Cupcake Cafe – Jenny Colgan – 7/10

“Life was always easier, reflected Issy, when you were carrying a large Tupperware full of cakes. Everyone was happy to see you then.”

cupcake

Dumped, made redundant, and caring for a grandfather slowly being swallowed by dementia, poor Issy resorts to her usual comfort food – cupcakes. She uses her redundancy payment in a move of desperation to lease a down-on-its-luck building and slowly starts to get a cafe going. Will she manage to make a go of it, or will a dastardly ex-boyfriend burn her dreams?

This is a sweet coming-of-age, or rather emotional maturity, story. In a sense, character development is predictable (one arch-nemesis becomes a friend, another provides the conflict throughout). Romantic entanglement equally predictable but cute. Issy really does mature organically and while having both a helpful bank manager and colleague appear as if by magic is a little too helpful, the rest is credible.

Colgan captures the neighbourhood of Stoke Newington (“Stokey”) well, she clearly knows and loves the area and is keen to see it flourish while protected from property developers (as are Issy and Austin in the story).

The best part of this is that it is interspersed with excellent recipes, written in a light tone, matched to life events for the damsel in distress. I really want to try some of these (which is how I felt about other recipes-in-novel books like The Love Verb and Miss Julia)

Definitely recommended for a light read with imaginary cake.

Additional information:

Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review
Publisher: Sourcebooks (ebook)
Order Meet Me At The Cupcake Caféfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

A couple of recent DNFs

Someone Else’s Wedding – Tamar Cohen – 2/10 (DNF)

someone else's wedding

Description from the blurb, because it’s very clever:

Mr & Mrs Max Irving request the company of:
Mrs Fran Friedman, mourning her empty nest, her lost baby, the galloping years, and a disastrous haircut.
Mr Saul Friedman, runner of marathons, avoider of conflicts and increasingly distant husband.
The two Misses Friedman, Pip and Katy, one pining over the man she can’t have, the other trying to shake off the man she no longer wants.
At the marriage of their son James Irving, forbidden object of inappropriate and troubling desire.

I never got off the ground with this one. I found Fran self-indulgent, self-pitying and the mystery of her relationship with the groom was very strange. Surely they should be totally different generations? Saul and the daughters were interesting characters and Cohen comes out with a spectacular turn of phrase every now and again, but I got really tired of Fran’s voice. DNF, and sharpish.

I don’t know whether this is just a piece of anti-romance snobbery I have – I just can’t be dealing with people’s nonsense.

(review copy from Doubleday, affiliate link to Amazon in case it looks interesting)

The Burgess Boys – Elizabeth Strout – 2/10 (DNF)

Burgess boys

Jim and Bob Burgess have escaped their Maine upbringing to Manhattan; of the three siblings, only sad single mother Susan is left, struggling with her teenage son Zach. When Zach is caught goading local Muslim Somali refugees, high-powered lawyer Jim won’t give up his exotic holiday and sends tender but ineffectual Bob home instead. Old tensions rise unbidden…

This is written in that ethereal style of much successful contemporary literature – vignettes and snapshots of sad lives, tangled by some bizarre event (it takes quite an imagination to leave a frozen pig’s head outside a mosque…). I didn’t like it in A Visit to the Goon Squad, and I didn’t like it here. If you like this style of writing, this book may hold a lot more promise for you because I didn’t think it was badly written, I just don’t like that style of writing!

(review copy from Simon & Schuster; affiliate link to Amazon)

Fear not, this isn’t all I’ve been reading recently – more positive reviews soon!

The Lawgiver – Herman Wouk – 9/10

“God was right about Adam: for a man to live alone is not good. I can’t spare a rib.”

lawgiver

Herman Wouk (yes, that Herman Wouk) has been trying to write a novel about Moses for fifty years. As he finally sits down to start, Hollywood comes hurtling into his life; an eccentric billionaire will bankroll a film about Moses if Wouk will approve the script by unknown ex-Jew Margolit Solovei. Margo’s desperation to land the job puts her back in contact with a high school sweetheart and through him, commences a sweet and much-needed confidance with a literary professor. Throw in a naive Australian sheep farmer and a mad English agent; yet somehow romance and creativity prevail over absurdity.

This is really a character study in the somewhat polarised and distorted film world. Margo is a fantastic creation – passionate about her work yet insecure, craving the approval of her father, mentor and idols, yet perfectly happy to throw multiple spanners into works. The novel is tightly cast; no one is extraneous and all contribute to both plot and humour. Possibly my favourite character is gentle-natured Perry Pines, accidentally thrown into the whirlwind of Hollywood, yet clinging stubbornly to the farmland of his youth (“Crooked Creek Farm”).

The epistolatory/”collection of evidence” style of writing is one which I’ve only come across a few times before – it worked very well in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and spectacularly in Salmon Fishing in the Yemenwhile I wasn’t a huge fan of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Suffice to say, the book’s got to be quirky before you can think about using this method. Anyhow, it works here – various voices are developed without that inconvenience of having all your characters in one place, or justifying lengthy monologues/stream-of-consciousness.

Similarly, the technique of the author writing himself into the text as a character is both bizarre and gives him an auto-biographical mouthpiece; his anxiety at running out of time is palpable, as is his deep devotion to his wife of 65 years. In a sense, this has aspects of an open love letter to BSW in the same way that The End of Your Life Book Club is an open eulogy. The humour is strong without being forced – I was safe to read this while having my hair cut (no laugh out loud moments) but plenty of little chortles.

I found the deep-running Jewishness at once bizarre and intriguing, isolating, yet with the footnotes, captivating. This is really a novel about being Jewish, as well as being in the film industry (or a reclusive author, or sheep farmer…). I suspect that Jewish readers might find it overly simplistic or even a little insultingly stereotypical, but I’m not Jewish so I can’t judge.

Now I have to read Marjorie Morningstar.

Additional information:

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes – 8/10

“He was younger than I had thought, and had dropped his faint air of haughtiness. Perhaps Parisian waiters were trained to be kind to weeping women in their cafés.”

Lou Clark, breadwinner for her family before her time, lover of bumblebee-striped tights and expert tea maker, loses her job in the tea shop and has to take on a job caring for Will Traynor, who very definitely lives on the other side of the tracks. Will is the victim of a motorcycle accident and has lost the will to continue (assisted) living. Can Lou give him a reason to keep trying?

I wasn’t completely convinced by Moyes’ previous effort, The Last Letter from Your Lover, but this has received absolutely rave reviews (including from one of my managers, who claims she was bawling for most of the book…) so home from the library it came, and off to France. I have to admit it didn’t move me to tears, but it was certainly a moving look at life as a carer and one cared for, and at its heart a simple love story in a complex setting.

Lou and Will are both not overly complicated but sympathetic characters, and most of the supporting characters are also not richly developed (there are lots of them so probably for the best) – I didn’t have all that much time for either of the families or the dreadful boyfriend; all the innate goodness seemed to be in our three key characters, which is a bit wrong. Nathan, the physical therapist, is a spectacular supporting character and without doubt based on a real-life deadpan New Zealander.

The ending is a little drawn out but I think that the characters all make decisions consistent with their personalities; Moyes milks the heart-string-tugging for all it’s worth right up to the last page (the source of the quote at the top of this review).

Additional information:
Copy from Tooting Library.
Publisher: Penguin, 480 pages (paperback)
Order Me Before You from Amazon*
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The War of the Wives – Tamar Cohen – 7/10

“Simon now lives with his face to the wall. Every photo of him in the house is turned around so his nose is pressed against the cold plaster. Unable to see what’s going on. Out of the picture. Ignored.

How he’d hate that.”

Two wives. One husband. You can see how that might be awkward. Imagine being happily married for 28 years. You have three children, a lovely house and a husband who travels a lot – but even after all this time, you still love each other. Then one day you get a call that turns your world upside down: your husband is dead. You are devastated. You go to the funeral… and come face to face with his other widow. Another wife, another family. They never knew you existed, you never knew they existed. It can’t be true. It must be a mistake. It has to be her fault – all of it. Or: is it? But then again, not technically wives any longer. Widows. Two widows.

At first I was not convinced by this at all; both women seemed so insubstantial, spoilt, self-indulgent, but Lynsey Dalladay at Transworld has been so generous with review copies that I thought I would carry on (I couldn’t face writing the email to Lynsey to say I was abandoning it) and around page 150 it really picked up and suddenly I was hooked. Both women became more “normal” although both were still well outside the range of normal humans I interact with every day, and once both women were set on finding out what had happened and how they had been concealed from one another for so many years, it became a lot more gripping.

Some of the best writing is actually nothing to do with the bizarre conflict situation; it’s about the fear both women have of being left behind, of ageing, of not being perfect any more. Writing about the inherent distress of parenting teenagers, particularly in this age of technological openness and simultaneous concealment. When I was searching for a quote to top this review, I came across lots about ageing and teenagers, but actually not so many about the insidious betrayal at the heart of the book.

While I didn’t expect the various twists and certainly got quite into the threatening darkness the novel takes on, I was unconvinced by the ending; the revelation was too brutal and sudden. There was a large cast of extraneous characters and a few too many diversions from the plot (e.g. a stalker in a cupboard committing vandalism). On the whole though, a gripping read worth making it through the lengthy set-up.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Transworld, 410 pages (hardback)
Order The War of the Wives from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.
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