Book Review – The Splendour Falls

Chinon, France – with Château de Chinon on the hill

 

Emily Braden has been convinced to go on vacation with Harry, her charming but unreliable cousin.  Harry is going to the town of Chinon in France to look for the lost treasure of Isabelle, one of the Plantagenet queens, and he arranges to meet Emily in Chinon.  Unsurprisingly to Emily, Harry fails to show up on the agreed upon date.   So begins another of Suzanna Kearsley’s wonderful romantic historical mysteries.  

At first Emily thinks nothing of Harry’s absence, but as the days go by without hearing anything from him, Emily grows concerned that perhaps Harry’s failure to appear is more than just his usual forgetfulness.  As she gets to know the other guests in the hotel in which she is staying, she becomes entangled in not only the mystery of Queen Isabelle’s lost treasure, but also the more recent mystery of another Isabelle, who supposedly hid a treasure before taking her own life in World War II.

The cast of characters include a charming Frenchman and his delightful child, two Canadian brothers, an American couple, and an old retainer with secrets of his own, all of whom draw Emily further into the mysteries of Chinon.  Ms. Kearsley’s delightful descriptions of Chinon gave me the sense of being there, and I admit to spending an evening looking at photographs of the French town and reading more about this historical little gem of a city in the Loire Valley in France.  

I was alternatively entranced and dismayed by the unfolding events and kept reading “just one more chapter” until the wee hours of the morning.  The ending was eminently satisfying–the mystery of both of the Isabelles is resolved as is Harry’s disappearance.  My only disappointment is that I would have liked a bit more detail about the two Isabelles and their times.  However, all in all, it was a satisfying read for anyone who likes historical thrillers set in an exotic locale with a bit of romance thrown in, too.

 

A new Mary Stewart?

 

Reading Clipart Image: Girl or Young Woman Reading a Book While Laying on the Floor

Girl Reading

When I was a girl, I loved reading gothic-type romances by authors such as Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Madeleine Brent.  Historical novels were also favorites so when I first read a book by Mary Stewart, I was overjoyed that there was history as well as romance and suspense.  I read all of her books, which our small town library contained, and then reluctantly moved on to other authors.

Last year I happened upon a wonderful website:  https://openlibrary.org/ On that site are digital copies of many older books that were published too recently to be in the public domain but are old enough that they aren’t in the library anymore.  Much to my delight, they had most of Mary Stewart’s books.  Over the next several weeks I was able to borrow and reread my old favorites:  Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, This Rough Magic, and others.

As I read, I kept thinking of how much fun the suspense and romance are and how many historical facts, geographical descriptions, and literary allusions there are in her books.  I don’t often come across an author who not only writes well but also includes all of these details which give the novel depth as well as educates the reader in history and geography.  Plus, they are just plain fun to read.

One such writer today is Susanna Kearsley.  I read a couple of her books last year and enjoyed them, but when I picked up The Splendour Falls last fall and started reading, I realized almost immediately that here was a writer who could just about fill Mary Stewart’s writing shoes.  History, romance, adventure, suspense–it had it all.  I could hardly put it down and, for the first time in years, read past midnight to find out what would happen next.  I went on to read Season of Storms and was reminded of the gothic thrillers I enjoyed so much.  Her book, The Winter Sea, took me back to Scotland in the 1700’s during the Jacobite uprisings while Every Secret Thing was a thriller set in modern day Canada as well as Lisbon, Portugal in the 1940’s.

In each of her books there are elements of suspense and romance, but the amount of historical research that has obviously been done gives her books a depth which is often lacking in other romantic thrillers.  Like Mary Stewart, she includes a plucky heroine, an exotic locale, and a mystery to be solved.  There are usually charming and/or quirky secondary characters and a man with whom the heroine will develop a friendship, even if he doesn’t seem her type at first glance.  While Ms. Stewart sometimes included a smattering of history and atmosphere in her novels, Ms. Kearsley takes it further and often gives a more in depth historical background to either her place and/or her heroine’s story.

I am so glad to have discovered Suzanna Kearsley’s books and I look forward to many more happy years of reading to come.

The Burning of the World and A Bunch of Sweet Peas

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován

The Burning of the World is the translation of a personal diary kept by Béla Zombory-Moldován during the first year of World War I.  The author was a young Hungarian artist who was on holiday abroad when war erupted in Europe in August 1914.  He quickly returned home, reported for duty (he was a reserve officer), and was thrown into the chaos that was the Eastern Front at the beginning of the Great War.  He writes of his feelings about the war, his concern that it isn’t quite as glorious as everyone is saying, and the sheer terror and chaos that he found in his first battle.  The end of the book tells of his injuries and the three months he spends convalescing, trying to forget all that he has endured and will endure.

While the writing is quite beautiful at times and evocative of the place and time, it could be rather choppy and disjointed at other times.  One thing I found difficult was that the numerous notes were at the end of the book.  Since the author was not writing for publication, these notes were often essential to determine who people, places, and situations were.  Yet having to constantly flip to the back of the book to read them interrupted the flow of the narrative and I had a hard time staying with it.

I was glad to read a bit about the Eastern Front as I had not read anything about it before this, but I suspect that there are other memoirs that would be clearer and easier to understand than this one, which is a shame since there are moments that the author’s thoughts and words really connected with me.  Recommended, with reservations.

 

 

A Bunch of Sweet Peas by Henry Donald

In 1911 the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, offered a prize of 1,000 pounds for the best bunch of sweet peas.  Expecting 15,000 entries, they were inundated with over 40,000 entries, among which were the flowers of an obscure Scottish parson and his wife.  The story follows the steps the parson and his gardener take to grow a beautiful bed of sweet peas–only their second year growing them–, the drought that threatened to kill the flowers only weeks before the competition, the trials to determine the best way to send them by train, the judging, and the final decision.  I listened to the audio, narrated by Judy Dench, which was a delightful way to “read” this story.  I will probably want to read it again as I’m sure I missed some of the details and because it is just so heart-warming.  It’s a sweet little story and was the perfect choice for lying in bed with the flu.  Recommended.

Wednesdays with Words – June 18, 2014

 

This week I finally read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  I’ve had it on my TBR list for years but somehow or another I never picked it up to read.  The other day I saw it hanging out at the library, checked it out, brought it home, and reveled in it for four days.  What a wonderful story it is!

Although my childhood was immensely more privileged than Francie’s, I saw in her character much of my own love of books and words and reading as well as my enjoyment in simple pleasures.  The simple pleasure game* is one of my favorites to play with myself.

Here are a few quotes from this lovely book:

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains – a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone – just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

 

*The simple pleasure game is just finding pleasure in the little things of life:  like a hot cup of tea on a cold day or a iced coffee on a hot one; the smell of newly mown grass; stopping to smell a flower; watching a bird in a tree; putting your feet in a river; eating one piece of good chocolate; hearing your favorite sonata on the radio; putting your hands in the warm earth as you plant the first plants of the year; and so forth.  It’s making every moment count and finding the little pleasures that God brings every single day if only you open your eyes to them.

Longbourn – Book Review

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen–we have read the book, have watched the movie (and TV adaptations), and perhaps have read a spinoff book or two.  Women sigh over Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, literary gurus discuss the authenticity of the films, and men abandon reading Jane Austen books because they think it is just another costume drama or chick lit book (which it isn’t but I will write about why men ought to read Jane Austen another day).  Behind the beautiful costumes, the balls, the meals, the teas, there was an army of people who cooked and cleaned and ran errands and mended and drew water and built fires and drove the carriages and did all of the work required for Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, the Bingleys, Mr. Darcy, and all of our favorite characters to live.  These were the servants.  And the book Longbourn, by Jo Baker tells the story of the little group of servants who worked and cared for the Bennetts.

The time line of the book is mainly the same one with which we are familiar.  It opens just before the Bingleys come to Netherfield and ends several months after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are married.  However, it isn’t really about the characters of Pride and Prejudice although they are seen in Longbourn from time to time.  Instead, Jo Baker uses Pride and Prejudice’s time line to tell a whole new story about Mrs. Hall and Mr. Hall, about Sarah and Polly and James, about their relationships and secrets and the hard, hard work that they do each day to maintain Longbourn.  Jo Baker obviously did a lot of research about the time period and the things that needed to be done each day and each season to live, from drawing the water every morning and starting the fire to making soap, scrubbing petticoats three inches deep in mud, making the many meals each day, and butchering a pig.

I had heard mixed things about the book but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I was quickly drawn in to Sarah’s life.  Sarah is the first housemaid and the main character of the book.  She was an orphan who was brought to Longbourn as a child to work for the Bennetts.  She is hard-working and intelligent, reads novels in her rare spare time, and is very suspicious of the new footman, James, who comes to Longbourn at the beginning of the book.   The story of Longbourne is mainly Sarah’s story–the people she encounters, the judgments she makes, the decisions she faces, and the life she makes for herself.

There are misperceptions, secrets, losses, failures, and love in the book.  In the end Sarah makes choices for herself that lead her, not to a perfect life, but to the life she most desires.  There were  a few things I didn’t like.  There were parts that were nods to modern ideas, which I thought unnecessary, and a couple of the portraits of beloved characters were unflattering.  However, it was fascinating to see what the servants may have thought of the Bennetts and Mr. Darcy.  I particularly found the Mrs. Hall’s opinions of Mrs. Bennett and Sarah’s reactions to Wickham and Darcy very interesting.  Overall, I liked it a lot and I’m glad I read it.

Book Review – A Star for Mrs. Blake

In the early 1930’s the United States government send several thousand women, who had lost their sons in the fighting of World War I, to France to visit their graves. A Star for Mrs. Blake is a fictional account of a woman, Cora Blake, and the small group of other mothers with which she traveled to France. Cora Blake is from Maine.  She is a hard-working widow who had raised her son, Sammy, on her own, only to lose him in the last months of World War I.  She and several other women travel together to France to visit their sons’ graves and to act as goodwill ambassadors between the United States and France.  As they travel through France, Cora Blake’s story unfolds along with the story of a reporter she meets in Paris and, to a lesser extent, the stories of the other women and the officers in charge of the group.

What I liked:  The history was interesting.  I did not know anything about Gold Star mothers (mothers who lost sons in the war).  The descriptions and some of the events were also interesting.

What I didn’t like: The characters seemed very shallow at times.  Their interactions seemed forced, they became too familiar with each other too quickly, and their actions often didn’t seem believable.  Also, while the story could have been very good, many things were skimmed over so that it left me wanting to know more.  I kept waiting for more depth and more understanding as to why people were doing what they did but I finished it unsatisfied.

It is a quick read and I think it could have been a good book but I wish the author had spent more time developing her characters and sharing their motivations and thought processes rather than just skimming over the surface.