Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Glass of Blessings - Barbara Pym

In the late 1950's, Wilmet Forsyth is nearing her thirtieth birthday. She lives in a suburb of London with her husband, Rodney and her mother-in-law, Sybil. Wilmet met Rodney in Italy during WWII. Back then he was a dashing Officer in the Army and she was a young woman serving in the WREN's. In the intervening years Rodney has put on a few pounds, begun to lose his hair and his job at the Ministry keeps him busy.

An acute observer of her surroundings and particularly of the happenings in the local church, Wilmet embarks on a journey of discovery which sees her yearning after a little adventure in her life, especially as Rodney prefers her not to work she feels she must fill her time somehow. As they are proposing to take a holiday in Portugal in the summer, she and Sybil decide to take Portuguese lessons and who should be their tutor but the enigmatic Piers Longridge, the brother of Wilmet's oldest and best friend, Rowena. Soon she finds Piers occupying her thoughts a little more than perhaps is proper for a married woman.

A Glass of Blessings was published in 1958 and was the fifth of seven books written by Barbara Pym. It is the first of her books I have read and it will not be the last. Pym's observations of people and their foibles are faultless. Through Wilmet Forsyth's thoughts and comments she masterfully and without malice, paints an intricate picture of life in middle-class London in the late 1950's. Her perceptive insights into the character and expectations of the cast in the story produce an excellent essay on suburban life of the time. The language is clever and the dialogue erudite, witty and delightful. This book was an enjoyable find for me and offers the reader a journey back in time to late 1950's England. It is charming, insightful and historically accurate. There were several things described in the book that I remember my grandmother having in her house when I was a child in the late sixties.

Barbara Pym intrigued me as I had not heard of her work before so I read a little about her life after reading this book. I can easily see why in 1977 she was nominated by both David Cecil and Philip Larkin as the most underrated writer of the century.

If you like journeying back in time, this is just the book to take you on a great ride.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Frances and Bernard – Carlene Bauer

Frances Reardon is an author and Bernard Eliot a poet who meet for the first time at a writer’s colony in 1957. They have mutual admiration for each other’s work, which is more than they can say about many of the other attendees at the colony that year. They agree to become correspondents after they leave the colony and over the following nine years the most extraordinary love story begins.

This is an epistolary novel which has only five voices. The majority of letters are from Frances and Bernard but there are also contributions from Frances’s friend, Claire, Bernard’s friend, Ted and their joint publisher, John. Reading the letters is a perfect way for the characters to be uncovered and for the reader to watch the love story unfold. I adore reading stories told through correspondence and even though it sometimes feels like an intrusion into the subject’s private thoughts and feelings, I find I cannot wait to read the next letter in the story!

This novel proved to be an extraordinary accomplishment in penmanship, especially as the main characters are artists and quite opposite in character. Frances is restrained, religious and erudite and Bernard is entirely learned, passionate and suffers with mental illness episodes which seem to be brought about by his struggles with thoughts on love and the nature of faith. Even though there are a lot of religious references and discussions in this story, it did not detract from my enjoyment of it. Frances is devoutly Catholic although she has a hearty dislike of religious hypocrites and most of the nuns who taught her as a child. Bernard is a recent convert to Catholicism and soon realises the construct of his faith is flawed. The discussions around this are so well thought out and not in the least bit “preachy” which is what I dislike most about religion-centric novels. Religion is included in this novel because it is such an important issue to both characters and not just to make a statement to the reader.

Carlene Bauer has written an astonishingly witty, absorbing and ingenious novel which does not shy away from questions of faith, love and suffering for ones art. She skilfully uncovers the controlled and explosive natures of Frances and Bernard and is completely masterful with her use of language throughout the story. It is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read in many years and I was totally absorbed by the prose. I know I will read it many times not only to feast on the language and turn of phrase but to amble rather than gallop through the letters, now that I know what happens next!

This book is a feast of eloquent and witty prose and an absolute joy to read.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Black Swan Rising – Lee Carroll

Garet James is no ordinary woman, but, when the book begins, she doesn’t know that yet! Even though she has a thriving jewellery-making business she has financial troubles of her own. With an aging father to look after and his art gallery business under threat she is worried that they may lose their home which also doubles as their business premises.

As she is heading back from a meeting with her bank manager, she stumbles across an old jewellery shop which she hasn’t noticed before. Trying to escape a sudden downpour she steps inside the shop and is immediately drawn to an old silver jewellery box. There is something very special about this box which seems to shimmer under her touch. The shopkeeper seems to know of Garet’s talent of working with silver and gold and asks her if she can open the box as it has been somehow soldered shut. Not an easy task to perform and keep the intricate work on the box intact but with the offer of $1000 from the shopkeeper, she takes on the challenge. She heads home with the box and takes it to her workshop where she begins on opening the seal.

That is when her life changes forever.

I first read this book when it was newly published in 2010 and loved it. Having just re-read it, I fell in love with it all over again. It is a fantastical tale of magic, fairies, vampires and a centuries-old love affair. Garet James is the latest in a long line of female protectors of humankind, it’s just that she has no idea about her powers or her heritage as her mother died before she could tell her the truth. So in Black Swan Rising, Garet makes the journey of finding out about herself and her ancestors’ story without the guidance of her mother’s wisdom and experience and she takes the reader along with her too. She does have some help along the way as Oberon, King of the Fairies, makes an appearance and leads her through various challenges to help her realise who she really is.

This is the first book in a trilogy which chronicle the tale of the Black Swan. The second book, Watchtower was published in 2011 and the final book, Shape Stealer, is to be published in March this year. I can hardly wait to read it!

If you love a fantastic story filled with magic and a tale of the age old battle of good versus evil, then pick up these books. You will not be sorry.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Return to Sender – Fern Michaels

Lin Townsend has had a very sheltered life and has endured being bullied and beaten by her religious maniac of a father. When she was very young she was made to go to school in urine stained clothes because he wouldn’t allow her to go to the bathroom until she had finished reciting the bible passage he made her learn by heart. So, at age seventeen when she has the very first opportunity to escape her father’s violence by attending a maths tournament out of town, she jumps at the chance.

That’s when it happens. She meets Nick Pemberton, the most handsome boy she has ever laid eyes on and they have four wonderful days of fun and intimacy before Lin has to return home to her living hell. Two months later Lin discovers she is pregnant and when her father discovers the thruth, he literally throws her out into the street with only the clothes she has on her back. Fortunately Lin has saved some money to go to college with and using that she finds a one room garage apartment to live in and a job waiting tables at a local diner to keep a roof over her head. She tries to contact Nick to tell him of her plight but all her letters are returned unopened with the stamp “Return to Sender” on the envelope.

Eighteen years later we meet Lin again and this time she is in much better circumstances. After working two jobs and extra shifts at the diner before and after her son, Will was born, she is now the owner of the diner and a wealthy woman. We meet her as she is about to attend the NYC University open ceremony with Will who is about to commence his undergraduate degree in veterinary medicine. For the past eighteen years Lin has repeatedly tried to contact Nick to tell him about his son, but still the letters are returned unopened. Then, on what should have been the happiest day of her life she sees Nick Pemberton again and that is where the story really begins.

The first few chapters of this story are compelling reading. I loved Lin instantly and really wanted to know what happened to her and Will. As the book progresses, though, Lin begins to act foolishly and out of character from the original portrait that had been painted of her. I just couldn’t grapple with these two Lin Townsend’s and it irritated me to think how ridiculous she was being and I couldn’t believe she would resort to acting so childishly. Having said that, even though she got on my nerves, it did not stop me reading the whole story! I realised that those first few chapters had me hooked enough to care about what happened and had made me hopeful that Lin would get over the nonsense and be her nice self again.

I honestly cannot remember ever being so undecided about whether I liked a character or not. One thing is for sure, even though I really enjoyed the story I was glad when I finished reading it!

Have you ever had a character in a story really get on your nerves?


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares – Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

Happy New Year! Every good wish for 2013. Here is the first review of this year. Hope you enjoy!

It is Christmastime in New York and Dash (short for Dashiell) finds himself in his favourite place in all the world, the Strand Bookshop. Whilst searching the shelves he comes across a red moleskin notebook with the words “DO YOU DARE?” written on masking tape, in black Sharpie stuck on the front cover. He opens the book and there on the first page was a message:

“I’ve left some clues for you.
If you want them, turn the page.
If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please. “

He knew the handwriting was that of a girl. As he turns the page he sees the words that lead to the first steps of a wonderful journey of dares and truth!

Dash hates Christmas! His parents had been through a bitter divorce when Dash was eight years old. His father used Dash as a weapon to hurt his ex-wife, trying to gain sole custody of him and thus denying her any access to her beloved son. Fortunately, the judge realised what was happening and Dash’s mother won that particular battle. He has lived with her ever since although, a few years after the divorce, she had taken up with a boyfriend who Dash was not too fond of.

Dash is now sixteen and this particular year finds himself all alone at Christmas. He engineered this by telling his father he was spending the holiday with his mother and telling his mother he was with his dad. Both his mum and dad had decided to go on holiday with their respective partners thinking he was with the other parent. Dash was certain he would not be found out as his parents had not spoken a word to each other since the day they divorced. Being alone was just fine by him, it was a good opportunity to read and trawl the eighteen miles of bookshelves at the Strand Bookstore, Dash’s favourite pastimes.

Lily loves Christmas! She loves everything about it and even set up her own carolling society because there was none in the “gentrified bohemia” of the East Village where she lives. Lily is the youngest in the family, a family which includes her devoted mother and father, her brother, Langston, a doting grandfather, a great aunt and so many aunties, uncles and cousins she cannot count them all. Her grandfather used to run the neighbourhood family grocery store in East Village. He knows EVERYONE and even though he has retired from the grocery store he still lives on the fourth floor penthouse of the old brownstone building where it stood. Lily and her family live on the second and third floor. Because of this extensive network of family, friends and acquaintances looking out for her and the fact that Lily goes to an all girls school where she is not in the “in-crowd”, she finds it terribly difficult to meet and associate with boys her own age.

Langston suggests that she needs a boyfriend of her own age and with similar interests. He mentions the book of dares idea to her. Slowly she comes up with a plan and as her cousin works at The Strand Bookstore, her favourite place, she decides to try it out.

This is when things get really interesting!

This is a lovely story of two teenagers who are bookish and lonely and find it difficult to meet people they get along with. The fact that it is set at Christmastime adds to the feel good factor of the tale too. I particularly like the fact that each of Dash’s chapters were written by David Levithan and each of Lily’s chapters were written by Rachel Cohn without them having mapped out a plan for the story beforehand. They wrote each chapter sequentially and shared them only after each one was completed. The story unfolds just like that, especially as in some of the chapters the Dash and Lily have not met in person.

I was sorry when the book ended and headed off to look for the two other books which the authors had co-written.

If you want an entertaining, heart warming, well written story with believable characters, then be sure to pick up Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares which was published by Harlequin UK in Oct 2012.