Monday, August 27, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

Edith Wharton is a Pulitzer prize winning early twentieth century American novelist known for such major works as Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence. She also wrote short stories and poetry. I can’t claim much familiarity with Wharton’s writing. I read The House of Mirth so many years ago I can’t remember much of anything about it. I read Ethan Frome even farther back. I remember only thinking it one of the bleakest books I’d ever read. Still, it was very moving and I do want to read it again some day.

At any rate, a novel has just been released based on Edith Wharton’s life–The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields. Let’s see--historical fiction, based on a novelist’s life, female friendship, romance, Paris–of course I had to read it! It focuses in on the years of greatest upheaval in Wharton’s life. It begins in 1907. After the publication of The House of Mirth, Edith’s reputation as a writer is taking off. She has come to Paris to be with other artists and literary giants and because it is Paris. She is accompanied by her household staff which includes her long-time secretary, Anna Bahlmann. Anna is Wharton’s closest friend. Teddy Wharton, Edith’s husband, is also in Paris, but reluctantly.

Edith and Teddy have a passionless marriage. She realizes that she made a mistake in choosing him, but divorce is out of the question. While Teddy remains deeply devoted to Edith, she can no longer abide his presence. He is not her intellectual equal and the gulf between them has grown increasingly irksome to Edith. Worse, Teddy suffers from depression and Edith has no patience for his illness. More and more, the task of caring for him falls to Anna.

Attending various social events in Paris, Edith comes into contact with someone new–William Morton Fullerton. He is an American like herself, a correspondent for the London Times in Paris. He is also exceptionally handsome and charming. Edith is surprised and flattered to find herself pursued. Although her friends hint that Fullerton has a "reputation," she refuses to heed the warnings. She wants to understand what other women feel when they talk about love, about desire. And so, the game begins.

The story isn’t solely Edith’s. It’s also Anna’s. There are many parallels between the two women but it is their differences that make the friendship so strong. Edith is a powerful force. Her selfishness is grating. The fact that she recognizes it doesn’t let her off the hook. Nor does the fact that she can see some of her mother’s awfulness in her own actions and is disturbed by it. Edith makes her own choices. Some of her behavior, as she changes from pursued to pursuer, is cringeworthy, but her desperation in love is so recognizable and very human. And so, the sensible, kind balance that Anna provides gives the book the heart it needs. Anna is every bit as intelligent as Edith but more, she is wise and she is selfless. It is Anna’s happiness I ended up rooting for.

It’s always fun to read about great writers, to imagine what was going on in their lives as they composed their masterpieces. Based on real letters and diary entries, The Age of Desire allows a glimpse into the minds and hearts of two complicated women. And it makes me want to read/re-read Edith Wharton’s books.

Friday, August 24, 2012


Welcome to the Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop hosted by Holly at Bippity Boppity Book.
Historical fiction is my favorite genre so I've been looking forward to this hop ever since Holly announced it. The hard part was deciding what book to give away since there are so many good ones! I decided to offer up one that I read recently, the critically acclaimed Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd. This book is very gently used, but it is a signed first edition. (It says it is specially bound by the publisher.)
The goodreads summary is:
"Vienna. 1913. It is a fine day in August when Lysander Rief, a young English actor, walks through the city to his first appointment with the eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Bensimon. Sitting in the waiting room he is anxiously pondering the nature of his problem when an extraordinary woman enters. She is clearly in distress, but Lysander is immediately drawn to her strange, hazel eyes and her unusual, intense beauty.

Later the same day they meet again, and a more composed Hettie Bull introduces herself as an artist and sculptor, and invites Lysander to a party hosted by her lover, the famous painter Udo Hoff. Compelled to attend and unable to resist her electric charm, they begin a passionate love affair. Life in Vienna becomes tinged with the frisson of excitement for Lysander. He meets Sigmund Freud in a café, begins to write a journal, enjoys secret trysts with Hettie and appears to have been cured.

London, 1914. War is stirring, and events in Vienna have caught up with Lysander. Unable to live an ordinary life, he is plunged into the dangerous theatre of wartime intelligence – a world of sex, scandal and spies, where lines of truth and deception blur with every waking day. Lysander must now discover the key to a secret code which is threatening Britain’s safety, and use all his skills to keep the murky world of suspicion and betrayal from invading every corner of his life.

Moving from Vienna to London’s west end, the battlefields of France and hotel rooms in Geneva, Waiting for Sunrise is a feverish and mesmerising journey into the human psyche, a beautifully observed portrait of wartime Europe, a plot-twisting thriller and a literary tour de force from the bestselling author of Any Human Heart, Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms."
To enter, leave a comment with your email address. You don't have to be a follower to enter, but followers (either GFC or email subscribers) will get one extra entry. Please indicate in your comment if you are a follower, old or new. Thanks for participating and enjoy the hop!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I’ve just finished a wonderfully charming contemporary literary novel–a nominee for the 2012 Man Booker Prize– The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

Harold Fry is a timid middle-aged man, recently retired from a sales job at a brewery in a small English village. His life has settled into a routine that consists of sitting in his house, occasionally emerging to mow his lawn, and failing to communicate with his wife of many years, Maureen. (Failing to communicate puts it mildly. They are estranged, living in the same house but with years of bitterness and unresolved "issues" between them.)

A letter arrives from a co-worker, Queenie, who abruptly moved away twenty years ago. Harold has not heard from her in all that time but now she informs him she is dying of an inoperable cancer. She just wanted to say goodbye and to thank him for his past friendship.

Harold is moved/horrified. He tries to write a response, but what can he possibly say? He ends up with a note he knows is inadequate and sets off for the postbox to mail it. As he passes the first mailbox, he decides to keep walking. And walking. Then he makes up his mind to walk all the way to the hospice to see Queenie in person. (A journey of more than 500 miles.)

Along the way, Harold, who has always been an introverted person, comes to rely on interactions with strangers. Sometimes he draws strength from their support but, increasingly, the fact of his pilgrimage inspires others. And during the long hours he spends walking, he relives the events of his life that brought him to the low point he and Maureen had reached. Once they were a happy, hopeful young couple. They had been in love. Then they had a son, David.

In halting, fragmented memories, Harold remembers his own youth, his own broken family. He circles around the troubles in his marriage, his troubles with David. Whose fault? He circles around the event that led to Queenie’s abrupt departure twenty years previously and the breaking of a friendship that had meant much to them both.

How can a book where the main action is essentially a middle-aged man walking along a road be a page-turner? Read Joyce’s book and find out. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a beautiful story about relationships and discovering what is truly important in life.

Friday, August 17, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

When Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd was released earlier this year, it received some very strong reviews, like this one from the NY Times.

The book is a historical thriller, a spy novel, set in 1913 and 1914 in Vienna and England with stops in France and Geneva. The protagonist, Lysander Rief, is an actor, which of course makes him a uniquely suitable spy. Even though I don’t usually pick up cloak-and-dagger espionage novels, I was drawn to this one by the historical setting and by the descriptions of the psychological intrigue.

The book opens with Lysander traveling to Vienna to consult with a psychiatrist. Psychiatry is in its infancy but Lysander has a disturbing problem of (naturally) a sexual nature that has made him desperate enough to leave his fiancée and his job to go seek a cure. While in Vienna he meets some interesting characters including Hettie Bull, a fascinating, beautiful young woman with whom he begins a torrid affair. The affair ends when her common-law husband discovers she is pregnant. Terrified, she accuses Lysander of rape and he is arrested.

Lysander cannot believe she would betray him. Things become even stranger when the Englishmen—military men—who are in charge of his case help him to escape rather than bring the case to trial. (How much of this is really happening as Lysander understands it and how much is contrived? He seems at once horribly naive and fortunately wily.)

For awhile, back in England, it fades into the past as a memory of a narrow escape, a lesson learned, although Lysander has trouble forgetting Hettie and the son he left behind. But when the war breaks out, people from Vienna begin to crowd into his present and make strange demands. Lysander is significantly in debt to the government for arranging his escape. The men who were so helpful before now have a job for him. They need him to identify a traitor who is passing information to the Germans. Before long, Lysander is playing secret agent, risking his life, and trying to decode who, if anyone, can be trusted.

Lysander Rief is not one of those compelling protagonists who emerge larger than life from one book to make you want to follow them through a series of detective/spy stories. He’s no hero. He thinks well on his feet and he is remorseful when he has to kill or inflict pain for his own self-preservation. He’s intelligent enough to piece together the clues and follow a trail. But other than that, he’s a fairly shallow character. He tends to lust after whatever woman is currently in front of him. Sometimes he justifies that lust with a pretense of deeper emotion but not always. And he bounces back and forth between the women in his life as a matter of convenience. After awhile, I lost interest in what was going on with Lysander’s personal life and read the book strictly for its spy storyline. Here is where it is well-worth the read.

The book is fast-paced and tightly plotted. We follow Lysander through many twists and find out several things are surprisingly related, but how? While some of the multi-layering seemed a bit over-the-top, this is something that often strikes me in these kinds of novels. It may be that I have too hard of a time buying in rather than that the plotting was actually farfetched. I’m probably too naive. I don’t want to believe things I read in the newspaper could be true either. All the loose ends did pull together to a satisfactory conclusion with just enough ambiguity to leave Lysander cynical about it all.

William Boyd has written a few critically well-received novels and Waiting for Sunrise has also generated some fine reviews. I recommend it particularly to historical fiction fans who like WWI fiction, thrillers, or books with a psychological twist to them.

This completes my historical fiction challenge 2012. Even so, I know I'll be reading more historial fiction throughout the rest of the year so I'll keep on counting. Maybe next year I'll set the bar a little higher. But I do have other challenges I need to work on so I'd better get to those next!

Thursday, August 16, 2012


The winner of the giveaway is  ZOE L.

I've sent Zoe an email. If I haven't heard from her to claim her prize by Monday, I'll choose a new winner. Thanks to everyone who participated in the hop. I found some wonderful new blogs and hopped by some old favorites. And thanks again to the hosts-- I am a Reader Not a Writer and Reading Teen!

Monday, August 13, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

I read a remarkable book a few months ago to review for The Historical Novels Review May issue. If you're a historical fiction fan and unfamiliar with the Review or The Historical Novel Society, I recommend you check out their website here. As a member of the society you can get the quarterly review, which is chock full of recommendations for great novels. You can also come to our meeting, held every other year, and meet authors, agents and editors while listening to fantastic panels about historical fiction--the creative and the business side.

Now, to the book.  Here is the review as it appeared:

"The Norman Conquest of England was one of the pivotal events of the Middle Ages. In 1066, William the Conqueror and his brother, Bishop Odo, defeated King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. England was brought under Norman rule. The story was commemorated in the phenomenal Bayeux Tapestry. Sarah Bower uses the embroidery (and the embroiderers) as the focal point for her passionate account of the conquest, The Needle in the Blood.

The novel primarily follows the fortunes of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, Earl of Kent, younger brother of William the Conqueror. Ruled by ambition, he is the driving force behind the invasion of England. Seeking a permanent way to document the grandeur of the event for the masses, he commissions the embroidery, asking his sister, a nun with secrets of her own, to oversee the work.

One of the women she brings into her atelier is Gytha. A skilled embroiderer, Gytha was a lady’s maid to King Harold’s mistress. She was at the lady’s side when she was forced to identify the mutilated corpse of the king on the battlefield. Later, Gytha watched as the king’s capital city was invaded, its people killed, its women raped.

Naturally, Gytha hates the Normans, Odo most of all. She agreed to work on the embroidery for the chance to see him again, intending to kill him. However, when they do meet, fire erupts between them. They begin an affair with far-reaching consequences. Odo’s ambition has earned him enemies and his king’s jealous requirements clash with Odo’s need to be with Gytha.

Although the focus of the book shifts largely to the bedroom, it does hint at the larger problems facing a society undergoing so huge a transition. Given the fascinating historical setting, I couldn’t help but be immersed in the read."

I'm adding this to my Historical Fiction Challenge list. This is one of my favorite time periods and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to review the book. I recommend it highly to historical fiction lovers.

Historical Fiction Challenge 2012 hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

I’m double-dipping on challenges again. I’ve had the Folio addition of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier on my bookshelf for three or four years. It sounded irresistible when I bought it; the introduction is written by Julian Barnes. And yet I’ve managed to avoid reading it until now. I chose it for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge as my 20th century classic and I’m also using it toward my Mount TBR Challenge.

Apparently Ford wanted to call the book "The Saddest Story." Instead, it ended up with the somewhat ironic title, The Good Soldier. A Tale of Passion. Given that it is narrated by a purposefully unreliable narrator, the titles are also appropriately unreliable. It was a wonderful unfolding narrative of an affair told by the betrayed husband who tries, at different times, to excuse and accuse everyone involved.

Not the edition I read.
John Dowell is a wealthy American who travels to Europe with his bride, Florence. She has a heart condition and must remain abroad to recover, so they are there for nine years. While there, they meet Captain Edward and Lenora Ashburnham. They are "good people." Edward also has a heart condition. The two couples are thrown into company a lot. They take to one another and spend time traveling and touring. At the beginning of the book, which is the end of the story–John has begun looking back–Edward and Florence are dead. A scandal has occurred.

The story is told in fragments. Dowell narrates, but he tries to explain the viewpoints of each of the other characters as he thinks through what happened. He tells the same essential story over and over but yields up more information each time, allowing the reader to piece together a more complete picture of what actually took place. Dowell doesn’t seem to want to face the truth even now. It’s hard to believe that he was as blind to what was going on as he pretends that he was. It’s difficult for him to give a true account because a lot of what he remembers as truth has turned out to be a lie. And, when at last the story comes full circle, he is left with the sad realization that no one had the happy ending they wanted. Still, it’s hard to feel as sorry for him as he does for himself.

What makes this book such a readable classic is not the "plot." In itself, the plot is a rather straightforward and sordid, once it’s untangled. The characters are nothing special. But it is a classic example of narration by a hesitant, stumbling narrator–a narrator who tells his story reluctantly, seeming only to truly understand what story he is telling after he has talked it all out. It’s also a nice period piece. It’s set just before WWI and shows how the moneyed class lived and some of the social conventions of the times.

A lot of my classics challenge books are adultery themed. I’m not sure why that happened. I still have Anna Karenina to go.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


The YA Giveaway Hop is hosted by I Am a Reader Not a Writer and  Reading Teen. Over 200 YA and family friendly bloggers are participating. Hop around to check out the blogs and see what books and book-related giveaways are being offered.

I'm giving away a two book YA historical fiction package (US only this time.) The first book is a very gently used copy of Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl (link is to my review.)  The second is for a copy of my novel The Queen's Daughter.
To enter, leave a comment with an email address where you can be notified if you are the winner. Followers (old or new) get +1 entry --so please let me know if you are a follower. You can follow either by GFC or email subscription.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

I have an odd reading quirk–am I the only one who does this? Sometimes books have been sitting on my shelf for so long, waiting to be read, that I almost can’t pick them up and read them even though I really want to. So instead I approach them obliquely by reading something else by the same author. I put off reading Middlesex for a decade and read The Marriage Plot instead. I’ve been insisting that I need to reread Flaubert’s Parrot, but I went out and bought The Sense of an Ending and read that. And now, aware that there has been a Daphne du Maurier challenge or readathon going on among other bloggers, my desire to reread Rebecca has been rekindled. It has been on my shelf for at least 15 years and I really do intend to read it again. I can’t remember a single thing about it. But rather than take that book from my shelf, I borrowed My Cousin Rachel from the library.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier is a delicious old-fashioned page-turner. The story is told by Philip Ashley, a twenty-four-year old naive gentryman, orphaned as a baby and brought up by his generous bachelor cousin Ambrose.

Ambrose cares for nothing but his estate, his gardens, and Philip. He is content to bring Philip up to be his heir. Philip wants nothing more than to be just like Ambrose. They are self-contained in their own little world until Ambrose’s health starts to fail. His doctor insists he go abroad for the winter because of his rheumatism. Ambrose goes to Italy, and it is there that he meets Cousin Rachel.

Rachel is a distant cousin who married an Italian viscount and was widowed under scandalous circumstances. However, she is living quietly now and she takes Ambrose under her wing in Florence. She shares his passion for gardening. To Philip’s shock and dismay, Ambrose shortly informs him that they are wed.

Before Philip can adjust to this news (it takes awhile–Philip has to sort through all the ramifications of his own jealousy including the fact that he might eventually lose his position as Ambrose’s heir) he receives disturbing letters from Ambrose. All is not well. Ambrose fears and mistrusts Rachel. And he is ill. Philip hurries to Florence but arrives too late. Ambrose is dead. And Rachel has disappeared.

Philip returns home, certain that Ambrose has been murdered. He is therefore shocked when Rachel appears a few weeks later at his home. She is nothing like he expected. She is altogether charming. And Philip falls under her spell. Just like Ambrose.

It’s a fascinating study of a young man blinded by his own passion. Philip is a wildly unreliable narrator because he sees what he wants to see and convinces himself of what he needs to believe. The ending is wonderfully ambiguous because Philip’s arguments are never quite convincing and the facts of the matter could support either conclusion. Read it and see. What do you think? Was Rachel innocent or guilty?