Under The Covers and Reading

September 28, 2008

The Sealed Letter– Return to Sender or Open Immediately?

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Wow.  I raced through this book based on what I consider sheer “plot-based adrenaline” alone.  Emma Donoghue always manages to have what I call ‘spicy’ plots (Slammerkin) and her latest, The Sealed Letter, is no exception.

The plot recreates 19th century London (1864) and a true-life divorce tale of the Victorian era.  Emily “Fido” Faithfull is an independent woman (read ‘spinster’) and relatively successful publisher at the forefront fo the British women’s movement.  Fido’s long lost friend, Helen Codrington, returns to London after a seven year absence and intends to rekindle their relationship.  But that isn’t the only relationship Helen is pursuing; she’s invovled in an affair with a much younger British Officer and complains bitterly about her loveless marriage to an aging Admiral.  Helen succeeds in entangling Fido in all of her relationships leading to a public and extremely messy divorce trial.

Donoghue is masterful at revealing the layers of Victorian life for women and men of all levels of the social strata.  There is suspense, innuendo, sexual scandal, and style. The writing is fabulous; Donoguhue’s prose  makes these events seem like today’s front page news.   This isn’t a quick read by any means, but the story is so compelling I found myself racing through it to learn its resolution.  It’s a dark piece too, but worth the effort.  Especially since Donoghue provides an historically helpful ‘what really happened’ section as an afterword.

September 27, 2008

Fear of ‘Overselling’ a Book and Potato Peels

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Just the other day I commented on another blog (sorry, I can’t rember which one, but I think it was Book Club Girl) that I was in the midst of reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  I was only halfway through at the time but enjoying it far more than I expected.  I believe I wrote then that I had been afraid all of its good press was over selling and it could never live up to all of its glowing reviews.

And now I’ve finished it and indeed, it is a truly delightful book.  It was an absolute joy to read– the characters fresh and engaging, the main character, Juliet, believable, funny, and intelligent– all the things I want in a female protagonist.

The book takes place in post-WWII London and Guernsey, England.  Juliet is a writer of some renown who finds herself corresponding with the Channel Islanders as they sift through their war experience.  The book is a series of letters, telegrams, and ‘observations’ both from Juliet and those with whom she corresponds.  This makes it a fabulously quick read and the differing voices of the letter writes are well developed.  You can see these people and more importantly, you want to know them.  Their voices are mournful, humorous, shrill, earnest, wistfull, even accusatory, but all very believeble.  It’s not War and Peace, but it is a wonderful addition to contemporary fiction.

I fear that my short squib here won’t do the book justice  either and I am as guilty as other readers and reviewers in singing its praises.  It could so easily have been campy or hokey, and cynical as I am, I admit I expected it to be rather lame.  Much to my chagrin,  I’m left wanting more and that to me, is the mark of a really excellent novel.  I’ll just have to wait and assume there will be a film version.  Of course, that won’t do it justice either, but now I want to see late ’40’s Guernsey.

Suffice it to say this book is a definite 10!  Book clubs will eat it up with a spoon.

September 26, 2008

Pregnant Pause…Was it Just Me?

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My last post got me thinking about books I read while I was pregnant.  It was my experience that I had very strong reactions to books during my pregnancies.  I either loved them (like wanted my life to mirror them) or HATED them and couldn’t even finish them.  There was no middle ground.  I’m wondering if other female readers have had similar experiences and this is yet another aspect of our lives that changes during pregnancy.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else mention this.

In the ‘truly, madly, deeply’ category were all the Harry Potter books (I read books 1-4 on bedrest with my first pregnancy).

In the book ‘hall of shame’ were Atonement, Seabiscuit, Notes on a Scandal, and The Secret Life of Bees.  I’ve heard such fine things about at least 3 of these books so I’m guessing there was something else going on for me while reading them.

What did you read while pregnant?  What did you love?  Hate?

A book meme found at devourerofbooks.com

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What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read, or was the only book available on a long flight… whatever? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?
And, did you like it? Did it stretch your boundaries? Did you shut it with a shudder the instant you were done? Did it make you think? Have nightmares? Kick off a new obsession?

I’m having to think about ‘the book’ much longer than I would have expected.  Nothing is leaping to mind right away in terms of ‘outside your comfort zone.’  I’m usually so choosy that I won’t pick a book up unless I think it will be worthwhile for me.

That said, I’m going to go with ‘What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoe Heller.  When I write about this keep in mind I really am speaking about my reaction to the book and not the film.  I never saw the movie although I understand it was quite good.

As for the book…I picked it up thinking it would be a bit of juicy read but I was overwhelmed with how well Heller did drawing you into the characters mental illness.  I felt like I needed to shower every time I read it since the characters were so emotionally and ethically bankrupt.  At least that’s how I remember it.  Admittedly, I was reading it after the birth of my daughter so maybe my hormones were all ramped up and it was just the wrong time for me to read it.  I’m not sure.  I just expected to really love it and instead felt like I too much of a voyeur (in a bad way!)/ 😉  I’d love to hear what others thought!

September 24, 2008

A Sister Gone Wrong?

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Last night I finished Poppy Adams’ 2008 book, The Sister.  I desperately wanted to like this novel and parts of it were quite good.  The prose itself is excellent and the plot compelling– Two 60+ sisters (Virginia and Vivien) reunite after more than 40 years apart. The elder sister coming home to live with the younger.   It’s not immediately clear why they’ve been estranged, what happened to the rest of the family, or if the voice of the narrator is particularly trustworthy.  The sprawling and delapidated ancestral home plays an enormous part in the narrative as does the field of lepidoptery (the collection of butterflies).  But that’s where it got bogged down for me.  Too much time with the butterflies.  There is, of course, a relatively unexpected plot twist and that’s where I’ll leave it.

I think there would be much to discuss for a book club– especially about sisters.  Here are a few of the things I’d want to explore:

What constitutes family?

why do we keep secrets?

How do families deal with their pain?

what kinds of images of women are portrayed and how do the men in their lives compare?

Is there a ‘good’ sister and a ‘bad’ sister in this book?’

What’s Michael’s role?

What is the role of religion in the book for the sisters?

Overall, a quick but quality read (meaning it’s not fluff)  for when you’re in the mood for a bit of contemporary British suspense.  Not a must read but could make a fabulous movie.  I’d be surprised if Poppy Adams hasn’t already sold the film rights.  It’s so BBC or Masterpiece Theatery.

September 22, 2008

We’ll Start With a ‘Monstrous’ Winner

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I finished reading The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff this week and I’ve been feeling dreamy ever since.  This novel took me completely by surprise.  I think I first read a review of it in Entertainment Weekly (a surprising but fantastic source of squib reviews) and thought it sounded somewhat interesting, but after doing more research on it I wasn’t so convinced.  I even took it off my GoodReads TBR list.   So I was quite surprised at myself when I plucked it off the ‘New Books’ shelf at my local library.*  I scooped it up thinking that I’d give it a QUICK skim and confirm my disinterest and then return it for someone else.  I read the first page and I was hooked.  I was completely sold by the first three chapters.

The narrator, Willie Upton, was more real than any protagonist i’ve encountered in quite a while.  I loved her– she’s the kind of woman I want to go out and have a drink with– funny, intelligent, appropriately snarky, and true as she can be to her principles.  Mix Willie with a legendary lake monster, her soon-to-be career in academia, a historically significant all-American hometown (it’s a fictionalized  Cooperstown, NY), a host of perfectly eccentric historical figures and some major family secrets and you’ll have this book.

The thing is– it all works, too.  Groff has a great ear for sophisticated characters and dialogue that rings true.  She writes convincingly in multiple voices.  It would be a fantastic book club selection with themes about homecoming, the construction of identity, secrets & lies, how family shapes who we are or are not, women’s lives over the centuries, the significance of place….you can see where I’m going, I think.  This is one to savor.

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