Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Final Reminder: The Back to the Classics Challenge Ends Tomorrow!


It's not too late! Tomorrow is the very last day to post any links if you'd still like to participate in the Back to the Classics Challenge. You can still post your links for the twelve categories, plus the Final Wrap-Up Post.

Approximately 30 people have posted links (including myself, but don't worry, I'm not included in the prize drawing!) out of about 150 people who signed up originally. Odds are still pretty good -- you only have to link posts to six different book reviews to qualify for the $30 (U.S) gift certificate to Amazon.com OR The Book Depository!

Complete rules are here, and don't forget, you MUST link to a wrap-up post WITH LINKS to your reviews to qualify for the drawing. Post your link to your final wrap-up HERE to be included by midnight Central Standard Time tomorrow, December 31. 

I'll announce the winner early next week! Good luck to all the participants and thanks again for signing up!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge 2015: My Final Wrap-Up Post


I've completed my Back to the Classics Challenge list! Even though I'm not entering myself into the drawing, I wanted to include my list of what I read in 2015 for this challenge:


1.  19th Century Classic: Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope. Completed 4/20/15.

2.  20th Century Classic: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Completed 9/17/15.

3.  Classic by a Woman: Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Completed 3/13/15.

4.  Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Completed 7/26/15.

5.  Very Long Classic: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. Completed 3/1/15.

6.  Classic Novella: Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham.  Completed 2/20/15.

7.  Classic With a Name in the Title: Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope. Completed 3/29/15.

8.  Humorous or Satirical Classic:  Frozen Assets by P. G. Wodehouse.  Completed 1/8/15.

9.  Forgotten Classic: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley.  Completed 2/26/15.

10.  Non-Fiction Classic: Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. Completed 8/11/15.


11.  Children's Classic:  Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers. Completed 1/26/15.

12.  Classic Play: An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. Completed 12/21/15.

I think my favorites were Lady Anna, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The End of the Affair.  My least favorite was probably The Pickwick Papers, which took forever to get through. It's 400 pages shorter than Monte Cristo but it took much longer to finish. Only a few of them were from my Classics Club list, but I'm definitely pleased to have read twelve more classics!

There's just over a week left until the end of this challenge -- who's finished? Which books were your favorites? And have you signed up for the 2016 challenge yet?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde


My final book for the Back to the Classics Challenge -- and naturally, the shortest read took me the longest to select. I don't normally read plays, though I've actually been going to the theater more the last few years since I started visiting New York, and because I have a daughter who's very active in her school drama club. I kept waffling between different plays -- Shakespeare? Agatha Christie? Ibsen? Finally, I settled on my original idea -- a play by Oscar Wilde. Since I read and loved The Importance of Being Earnest for a classics book group a few years ago, I'd been meaning to read more of his work. And I was really glad I chose Wilde, because even his more serious works have laugh-out-loud, highly quotable moments. 

The story begins at a society party in 1890s London. The hostess, Lady Chiltern, is the wife of Lord Chiltern, a prominent Member of Parliament. Among the party goers are her sister-in-law, Mabel Chiltern; her husband's best friend, Lord Goring, who is kind but idle; and Mrs. Cheveley, who wangled an invitation so that she could speak privately to Lord Chiltern. Lady Chiltern remembers Mrs. Cheveley from school, and the frosty reception makes it clear that she does not have fond memories of her old classmate. 

We soon learn that Mrs. Cheveley is indeed a bad lot, and is trying to blackmail the almost saintly Lord Chiltern into doing something corrupt. A man of impeccable reputation, Chiltern made a youthful mistake and now she wants him to pay for it. He's desperate to get out of the situation without losing his position, his reputation, and most of all, his wife's love. Lady Chiltern has elevated her husband on such a high pedestal that he's terrified of disappointing her.

The real star of the show is actually Lord Goring, who is witty and charming and has a handle on the situation; also, he has by far the best lines. This being Oscar Wilde, everyone has their share of bon mots, but Goring is my favorite character. Here's a mere sample of the amazing dialogue, an exchange between Lord Goring and his manservant, Phipps, at the start of Act III:

GORING: You see, Phipps, fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. 

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: And falsehoods the truths of other people.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is one's self.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: To love one's self is the beginning of a life-long romance, Phipps.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: . . . For the future, a more trivial buttonhole, Phipps, on Thursday evenings.

PHIPPS: I will speak to the florist, my lord. She has had loss in her family lately, which perhaps accounts for the lack of triviality your lordship complains of in the buttonhole. 

GORING: Extraordinary thing about the lower classes in England -- they are always losing their relations. 

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord. They are extremely fortunate in that respect. 


An Ideal Husband was adapted into a film back in 1999, and I vaguely remember seeing it in theaters, but I didn't remember at thing about it except that Lord Goring was portrayed brilliantly by Rupert Everett (he also played Algy in the film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, co-starring Colin Firth). I've already requested both DVDs from my library so I can view them again, and I'm trying to track down a copy of The Good Woman, an adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan set in the 1940s on the Amalfi coast of Italy.

Any other play recommendations, bloggers? 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016: My List


I've been working on my list ever since I finalized the new categories, and here's what I finally came up with -- most of these are on my TBR shelves or my Classics Club list.

1.  19th Century Classic: Armadale by Wilkie Collins. I read No Name this year and loved it, and it's one of the last 10 books on my Classics Club list.

2.  20th Century Classic: A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell. Also on the Classics Club list.

3.  Classic by a Woman Author: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, or maybe something by Edith Wharton -- I still have a few of her books left unread.

4.  Classic in Translation: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, or maybe The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. Again, from the Classics Club list.

5.  Classic by a Non-White Author: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. I've owned this for about ten years!

6.  Adventure Classic: The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas or The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
7.  Classic detective novel: I've always wanted to read something by Josephine Tey, or maybe The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne -- I only just discovered that the creator of Pooh wrote mysteries as well! And I've never read anything by Dorothy Sayers. Busman's Honeymoon could count for the Reading England Challenge also.

8.  Classic Science Fiction: something by H. G. Wells -- either The Invisible Man or The Time Machine.

9.  Classic with a Place in the Title: I have several of these on left on my Classics Club list that would work: Lark Rise to Candleford; Main Street; or New Grub Street. I also own Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau; The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola; and The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope.

10.  Banned or Censored Book: most everything Zola wrote was censored, so that's an easy pick! I still haven't read The Fortunes of the Rougons, first in the Rougon-Macquart series. It was extensively revised to meet Victorian publication standards, so it definitely qualifies.

11.  Re-read a Classic From School: The Mill on the Floss or Howards End. I read The Mill on the Floss back in high school and hated it, so I should really give it another chance as an adult -- I loved Middlemarch, so maybe George Eliot deserves another try. Or I could just reread Howards End, which I read back in college, and absolutely loved.

12.  Short Story Collection: I have a LOT of short story collections on the TBR shelves, including  Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham; A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor; and Plum Pie by P. G. Wodehouse. I also have the collected stories of Stefan Zweig and Evelyn Waugh.

Bloggers, which do you recommend? Which should I erase from this list? I'm really looking forward to next year's reading!

And if you still haven't signed up, here is a link to the sign-up post for the Challenge. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

One of Ours by Willa Cather

Willa Cather is mostly known for her novels set in the great prairies of middle America, and though I lived in Nebraska for three years, I didn't seriously start reading her novels until I moved far away to Florida and then Texas. In the past ten years, I've read nine of her novels, and it took me this long to read One of Ours,which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. It's both a prairie novel and a World War I novel. Mostly, it's about a young man who is searching for meaning in his life, and has to travel halfway around the world to find it.

The book starts about 1910, when Clyde Wheeler is a young man, splitting his time between his family's Nebraska farm and his education at a small religious college in Lincoln. He really wants to transfer to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, but his parents fear that footballs and fraternities would be a bad influence; besides, they've decide he needs to work full-time on the farm. He loves his family, he loves the farm, but he wants more out of life. Over the next few years, things start to heat up in Europe, and he finally gets the chance to do something meaningful -- enlist in the army and fight in the Great War. Like The Professor's House, this could almost have been split into two different novels. 

For a war story, there isn't a whole lot of action, at least not until the very end. The first half of the book is mostly set in Nebraska, giving background and showing Clyde's disillusionment. A large chunk of the book details Clyde's journey overseas, especially the difficult sea voyage in which hundreds of his fellow soldiers fall ill (a significant percentage of soldiers died of disease, some before they actually saw any combat). When Clyde finally gets to France, there's a lot of vignettes about different people that he meets, soldiers and civilians, and how they impact his outlook on life. 

It's not what you'd call a fast-moving book with a lot of plot, but I loved the descriptions of farm life in Nebraska, and Clyde's character development. It's also inspired me to read moreWorld War I literature -- I still own Birdsong, The Guns of August, and Testament of Youth, which I'm planning to read next year for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Bloggers, what other World War I books do you recommend?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Reading England Challenge 2016


Once again, I'm signing up for the Reading England 2016 Challenge, hosted by o of Behold the Stars. The challenge is to read a certain number of books set in different British counties throughout the years. I have no shortage of British books on my TBR shelves; the challenge for me will be to spread them out throughout the different counties. It can be a little tricky because some books are set in multiple counties, and county names and borders have changed over the years.

I'm signing up for Level 3, 7-12 counties. I finished books from seven different counties so far in 2015 so I think I can achieve that number next year as well. Here are the possible reads I've been able to match with particular counties:


Berkshire: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy


Buckinghamshire: Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson


Cambridgeshire: Maurice by E. M. Forster


Cornwall: Basil by Wilkie Collins

Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier

Cumbria: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom


Dorset: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Gloucestershire: The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

Hertfordshire: Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers


Kent: The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham
The History of Mr. Polly by H. G. Wells

Lincolnshire: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot



London: New Grub Street by George Gissing
A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell

Norfolk: Armadale by Wilkie Collins


Northamptonshire: Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White


Oxfordshire: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley


Somerset: Every Eye by Isobel English

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer
The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope
Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by P. G. Wodehouse

Staffordshire: Adam Bede by George Eliot

Surrey: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Sussex: Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson
The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer
The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer
The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

That turned out to be quite a list! There's no way I'll get through all of these but it was fun to search through Wikipedia (if you're interested, just search for "novels set in England by county.")

Anyone else signing up for the Reading England Challenge? What other challenges are you signing up for next year?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016


It's back! Once again, I'm hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I hope to encourage bloggers to discover and enjoy classic books they might not have tried, or just never got around to reading. And at the end, one lucky winner will receive a $30 prize from Amazon.com or The Book Depository!


Here's how it works:


The challenge will be exactly the same as last year, 12 classic books, but with slightly different categories. You do not have to read 12 books to participate in this challenge!

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing
And here are the categories for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th Century Classic - any book published between 1800 and 1899.


2.  A 20th Century Classic - any book published between 1900 and 1966. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later.


3.  A classic by a woman author


4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language.


5.  A classic by a non-white author. Can be African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American, etc.


6.  An adventure classic - can be fiction or non-fiction. Children's classics like Treasure Island are acceptable in this category. 


7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. Dystopian could include classics like 1984, and children's classics like The Hobbit are acceptable in this category also. 


8.  A classic detective novel. It must include a detective, amateur or professional. This list of books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is a great starting point if you're looking for ideas.


9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title.  It can be the name of a house, a town, a street, etc. Examples include Bleak House, Main Street, The Belly of Paris, or The Vicar of Wakefield.


10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review.


11. Re-read a classic you read for school (high school or college).  Re-visit a book you were assigned to read! If it's a book you loved, does it stand the test of time?  If it's a book you disliked, is it any better a second time around?


12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories. It can be an anthology of stories by different authors, or all the stories can be by a single author. Children's stories are acceptable in this category also.


And now, the rest of the rules:

  • All books must be read in 2016. Books started before January 1, 2016 do not qualify. All reviews must be linked to this challenge by December 31, 2016. I'll post links each category the first week of January which will be featured on a sidebar on this blog for the entire year. 
  • You must also post a wrap-up review and link it to the challenge no later than December 31, 2016. Please include links within your final wrap-up to that I can easily confirm all your categories. 
  • All books must have been written at least 50 years ago; therefore, books must have been written by1966 to qualify for this challenge. The ONLY exceptions are books published posthumously.
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible! You may also count books that you read for other challenges.
  • Books may NOT crossover within this challenge. You must read a different book for EACH category, or it doesn't count.
  • Updated: Children's classics are acceptable, but please, no more than 3 total for the challenge.
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link to reviews on Goodreads or any other publicly accessible online format. 
  • The deadline to sign up for the challenge is March 1, 2016. After that I will close the link and you'll have to wait until the next year! Please include a link to your original sign-up post, not your blog URL. 
  • You do NOT have to list all the books you're going to read for the challenge in your sign-up post, but it's more fun if you do! Of course, you can change your list any time. Books may also be read in any order. 
  • The winner will be announced on this blog the first week of January, 2017. All qualifying participants will receive one or more entries, depending on the number of categories completed. One winner will be selected at random for all qualifying entries. The winner will receive a gift certificate in the amount of $30 (US currency) from either Amazon.com OR $30 worth of books from The Book Depository. The winner MUST live in a country that will receive shipments from one or the other. For a list of countries that receive shipments from The Book Depository, click here
So what are you waiting for? Sign up at the linky below! I'll be posting my list of possible reads for 2016 in the next couple of days. Happy reading!

Updated: The sign-ups are now closed. Check back at the end of the year to sign up for next year's Back to the Classics Challenge! 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Classics Spin #11



It's time for another Classics Club Spin! I'm nearly finished with my list -- only 11 books left to go, and it's Classics Spin #11 -- how can I resist?

On Monday, the Classics Club will post a random number from 1 to 20. Since I only have 11 left, I've put them in order, and then repeated 9 of them again to make an even 20. Fate will decide my next book selection, to be posted on February 1. Here are my choices: 

1.  Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
2. A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell
3. New Grub Street by George Gissing 
4. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas 
5.  Armadale by Wilkie Collins
6. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson 
7. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens 
8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo 
9.  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James 
10. The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason 
11. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis 


And to make it an even 20, here are the repeats:

12. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

13. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
14. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
15. Armadale by Wilkie Collins
16. A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell
17. The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
18. New Grub Street by George Gissing
19. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
20. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

Which books should I hope for? I really loved No Name so I'm hoping for Armadale by Wilkie Collins, or maybe New Grub Street. (I can also count my pick towards next year's Back to the Classics Challenge!) Anyone else participating? 


Updated: The Classics Spin number is #19! So I'll be reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge Reminder


Less than a month left to finish up the Back to the Classics Challenge! How is everyone doing? Last year, 132 people signed up for the 2014 challenge; a total of 21 people completed it and had their names entered into the drawing. This year, about 150 people signed up and only six people have linked to their wrap-up post -- the odds are ever in your favor! Remember, you only need to complete six books to be entered into the drawing -- one lucky winner will receive a $30 gift card to Amazon.com or The Book Depository!

All you need to do is write a short-wrap up post and link it here to get in the drawing! And there's almost a month left -- the drawing closes at midnight U.S. Central Standard Time on December 31, and I'll post the winner the first week of January. Please remember that all books must be at least 50 years old to qualify (with the exception of posthumous publications); therefore, a book must have been WRITTEN by 1965 at the latest.  To see the rest of the rules, click here.

If you didn't sign up for the challenge before the deadline, don't worry -- you can always sign up for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge! Yes, we are on for another year. Details will be posted soon.

And how's everyone doing with the challenge?  I've finished 11 of the 12 categories -- I still have to read my Classic Play, which should be a quick read. I can't believe I've put off reading it for so long -- it should be so easy to complete! I really enjoyed this challenge and look forward to posting my final wrap-up soon.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Nonfiction November


I'm always trying to read more nonfiction, so when I heard about Nonfiction November hosted by Sophisticated Dorkiness, I was intrigued. Last year I put twelve nonfiction books on my TBR Pile Challenge and I've only completed eight so far. It seems like the perfect time to buckle down and finish up that list, plus maybe a few more!  

There are weekly prompts, but I think I'm just going to concentrate on reading as many nonfiction books as possible (and blogging about them!) Here are some of the nonfiction books I'd like to read this month. As usual, I'm trying to concentrate on books from my own shelves.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore. A must-read, as it's the November selection for my library's book group, of which I am coordinator. This is the only book I don't own which I'm including in this list. 


Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir. Also on my TBR Pile Challenge list. I had hoped to read it this summer for the Paris in July challenge. 



Letters from Hawaii by Mark Twain. One of the books as yet unfinished from my TBR Pile Challenge. 









And a few more from the TBR shelves:

Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places by Margaret Doody. A birthday gift, and since I just attended the annual Jane Austen Society meeting in Lousiville, I'm all about Jane right now. 


Birds, Beasts and Relatives by Gerald Durrell. I loved My Family and Other Animals (there's also a charming BBC adaptation on DVD) but I've tried several times to read this one and couldn't get past the first chapter. I'm going to give it one more try, and if I don't finish it, it's going back on the donation pile. 


Life Below Stairs: in the Edwardian and Victorian Country House by Sian Evans. Lots of pretty glossy photos, this is closer to a coffee-table book. I bought this a few years ago during my Downton Abbey obsession. 

An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope. Haven't read any Trollope in months, and I'm really starting to miss him. 

Of course, I have other nonfiction books on my TBR shelves, so I'll be happy if I just make a dent in the pile!

So, bloggers, what do you think? Any winners in the pile? Books to avoid? And is anyone else signing up for Nonfiction November? 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

 

I took this one off the shelf at the library the other day because it was my lunch break and -- gasp! -- I'd left my book at home. The horror! But The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford was a) on my Classics Club list and b) short, under 200 pages, so it seemed like a win-win. It's a very short book, and yet I could talk about it for hours. 

Essentially, this is the story of two Edwardian-era couples with extremely dysfunctional marriages.  Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, a British couple, meet an American couple, John and Florence Dodwell, at a German resort, and begin a friendship that lasts for years. The narrator, the hapless John, has no idea that his wife Florence has been carrying on an affair with Edward for years, until both Edward and Florence are both dead. In a rambling narrative, the reader gets the story of the couples' friendship and the subsequent affair, just as though one was sitting down having a series of drinks with John and he was recounting the tragic story in person (possibly on a veranda in the tropics, with an ocean view and some nice cocktails, or seated in deep leather chairs in a gentleman's club.)

What seems a straightforward, though tragic story is eventually revealed to include a lot of twists and turns, with lies and hypocrisy and characters you just want to shake or smack upside the head. The ending left me flabbergasted and full of questions, and I so wish that I had chosen this book to discuss back when I belonged to a face-to-face classic book discussion group a few years ago. 

This book was published 100 years ago, in 1915, and I imagine it was groundbreaking for its time, mostly because of the style of writing -- I wouldn't call it stream-of-consciousness, but it doesn't really follow a linear progression. It digresses and rambles, but it's still really insightful and beautifully written. The Ashburnhams are trapped in a loveless marriage, yet they are loathe to admit it or even consider divorce. The Dodwells are from old moneyed families from the northeastern U.S., but I imagine that's fairly similar in regards to the upright, "stiff upper lip" sort of attitude of most of these characters. 

As I was reading it, I immediately recalled another book that really stuck with me, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, which I finished just a few weeks ago. I can definitely see how Ford must have influenced Greene -- the two books are almost companion pieces, with Greene's being the flip side, the adulterer instead of the cuckolded husband. The marriages of these characters are both tragic and heartbreaking, but at the same time, I felt like the characters mostly deserved what they got, in the end -- yet another case of fascinating train wrecks. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell



Once again, the Classics Spin picked a winner! I'd had this book on the TBR pile for several years, ever since I read Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, one of my all-time favorite books. I read Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, a few months ago, but in my opinion Sylvia's Lovers is the superior book.

Set in the late 1700s, this is the story of Sylvia, a young woman living in Yorkshire, and the two men who love her. The story begins with an incident of press-gangs, who were basically kidnapping men and forcing them against their will to become sailors for the British Navy, serving in the war against the French. A whaling ship, just returning after months at sea, is intercepted by a press-gang, and instead of returning to the welcoming arms of their loved ones, are immediately pressed into service and forced to return to sea to fight.

The press-gangs were feared and hated in the late 18th century, and are key plot points in the story. Young Sylvia Robson is 17 and the prettiest girl in town. Her cousin Philip Hepburn, a draper, has always been in love with her, but she finds him dull and pedantic. Her head is turned by a daring sailor, Charlie Kinraid, who is wounded in a skirmish against a press-gang. Charlie has a reputation as a heartbreaker, and Philip is jealous. A tragedy occurs, and Philip withholds information which could either hurt Sylvia, or give her hope.

Meanwhile, a young woman who works with Philip is in love with him, and another draper's clerk is in love with her. Basically, it seems like nobody will be happy in this story. Philip struggles with moral dilemmas, and the threat of war and the press gangs loom, and tragedy ensues.

Overall, I liked this book much better than I expected. I'd been put off reading it for years, mostly because I didn't think it would measure up to Wives and Daughters or North and South, two of Gaskell's best-loved works. Also, I found Mary Barton to be kind of preachy. It's a Gaskell's only historical novel, but I've been more interested in the Victorian period than the Napoleonic era. However, a couple of months ago I started reading the Poldark series, and though that's set in Cornawall, the opposite end of England, it's nearly the same time period, and that gave me a little courage.

I was also dreading it a little because I'd heard much of it is written in dialect, which it is, and that was somewhat hard to get through. However, I found the story pretty compelling; in particular, I thought Philip was a really well-rounded character, and I thought Gaskell did a good job with his moral dilemma. I did find Sylvia to be a fairly flat character, however. Honestly, she didn't have much personality -- other than being the prettiest girl in town, there's not much to her. She's a basic stock ingenue, like Charles Dickens' creations, which disappointed me. Also, the ending does sort of wallow in melodrama.

Overall, a good read, though not quite up to the standard of Gaskell's very best work. It was a pleasant surprise and now I'm nearly finished my Classics Club list, only 13 books to go! I'm looking forward to the next Classics Club spin!

I'm also counting this for the Reading England Challenge (Yorkshire).

Saturday, October 3, 2015

#15in31: Reading Challenge October 2015


Allie at A Literary Odyssey posted an interesting challenge for which she'd signed up: to read 15 books in 31 days! In September, I had a stellar reading month, completing 14 books (though to be fair, I'd actually started Wilkie Collins' No Name in August; However, it's a really long book, so I'm counting it anyway.) I'm pretty sure I could get close to 15 books in October if I try. I have some airplane travel coming up, plus a lot of books left on the TBR shelves I'd like to complete. Even if I don't finish the challenge, I'll have made some progress -- I'd love to knock at least 10 books off my owned-and-unread list!

I tried to choose as many as possible from my own shelves. There's no way I'll be able to blog about every single book I read in October, but here are my potential reads:

Must-reads:


Tea by the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfeild. I'm on an online group and it's part of a bi-monthly book exchange -- I need to read it and send it off to the next person by November 1. It looks like a charming memoir, just my type of book.

Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell -- I've already started this one, which was randomly selected as Classics Club Spin Pick #10. I'll hopefully be posting a review on October 23. Might be a slow read, because everyone speaks in dialect, but it's pretty good so far.

Letters From Hawaii by Mark Twain. One of the last books for my TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

The Black Moon by Winston Graham -- the fifth book in the Poldark series. My library only owns one copy and there are holds on it, so I have to read it in the next week or so.

The Four Swans by Winston Graham (not pictured, as it's waiting on the hold shelf for me at the library). Again, only one copy, and holds on it. I'm trying to stretch them out, but I don't want to miss my turn to read it.

Potential books, in no particular order (and a few extras, just in case):


Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite by Anthony Trollope. I haven't read any Trollope in months, and I'm starting to miss him. This one is super short, and I've always found the title amusing.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. One of the shortest books on my Classics Club list. I've tried to read it twice but couldn't get into it. Again, time to read it, or give it away.

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark -- another library sale find, a novella.

Tea with Mr. Rochester -- I have to include at least one Persephone from the TBR shelves! Short stories are always a good choice, and it's a tiny slim volume.

Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather. One of her early works, and it's been on my TBR shelf since I bought it at the Borders clearance. Plus it's really short.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge. Purchased about eight years ago after I saw it on a list of the best English-language books of all time. I need to read it, or get rid of it.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. I'm down to 14 more books on my Classics Club list, and this fits in nicely with RIP X.

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer. I have a weakness for NYRB Classics. Plus, it has "pumpkin" in the title, and it's October, so that's as good an excuse as any, right?

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns. From my pile of Virago Modern Classics. I just read Our Spoons Came From Woolworth's and loved it, so I want to read more books by Comyns.

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford. I don't read a lot of Jane Austen fan fiction, but the author was a speaker at the Jane Austen AGM a couple of years ago, and it sounded interesting. Also a good choice for RIP X.



An Academic Question by Barbara Pym. Pym's never disappointed me! I haven't read any of her books in over a year, so it's high time for another.

Ha'penny by Jo Walton. Sequel to Farthing which I read last week, and loved.

Still Glides the Stream by D. E. Stevenson. In case I need a quick, easy read. Stevenson's books are fun, light mid-century fiction. I picked this one up at the library sale a few years ago for $1.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. I finally got around to reading The Secret History and tore through it, so I should have no trouble finishing this one, if I don't decide to put it off for a few months -- it's the only one of her books I haven't read, and it'll probably be another eight years until she publishes another, so I might want to stretch it out a little.

So -- any recommendations?  Which books should I push to the top of the pile? I highly doubt I'll get all these finished, but it sounds like a fun challenge! Sign up at Estella's Revenge if you're interested. I'll be sure and post about how it turned out, and which books I actually finished.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

RIP X: Farthing by Jo Walton


It seems like my book choices, consciously or unconsciously, seem to follow themes. I'll read several adventures stories back to back, or biographies, and so on. Recently, I read three or four novels with WWII connections in a row -- Rowan Farm, The End of the Affair, and Farthing by Jo Walton (and I'm currently listening to an audiobook of When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.

Farthing was a book that had been on my radar for a long time, and now I can't even remember why I finally got around to checking it out from the library. It languished on the library TBR pile for weeks until I threw it in my book bag on a whim -- I'm notoriously bad about checking books out over and over and not reading them, so I started flipping through this last week on my lunch break. I was completely hooked and read the whole thing in two days -- I would have read it faster except I had to actually go to work  - so annoying how work cuts into my reading time!

Anyway. Set in the late 1940s, this starts out as a standard mid-century English house party murder mystery (a tiny bit like Gosford Park), though it's told in two viewpoints, alternating by chapter. The first chapter is told in the first person by Lucy, the grown daughter of the owners of the eponymous Farthing estate; and in the third person by Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard. The great twist of this novel, however, is that it's told as an alternate history, as if peace between England and the Nazis had been brokered in 1941, and the Nazis had won WWII on the Continent. (Apparently, the Americans never really got involved, and the Nazis are still fighting the Communists over Russia).

The novel starts out at a weekend house party, which Lucy is attending with her husband David, and the behest of her parents. Their estate, Farthing, is the center of the "Farthing Set" that helped broker the peace accords with Hitler, and the murder victim is Sir James Thirkie, the influential young MP who was instrumental in the talks. Things get ugly when it's implied that there is an anarchist/Jewish connection.  Lucy's husband David Kahn, a Jew, is a suspect in the murder, despite the sympathies of Detective Carmichael.

I read this book thinking it was a standard murder mystery, but it quickly became apparent that it's much more than that. Really, it's a chilling account of what could have happened -- and what could still happen -- when Fascists come to power. Jews are still wearing yellow stars on the Continent and anti-Semitism is rampant in England, especially among the upper classes, which apparently was quite common during WWII. (Diana Mitford's husband Oswald Moseley, a notorious Fascist, is mentioned, and Edward VIII was rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer as well). This being the mid-century, homosexuality is still illegal and there are also some closeted gay characters in peril. The whole thing is quite terrifying and I found myself on the edge of my seat towards the end -- I kept having to take breaks and put it down because I was very nervous about how everything would end up.

This book is categorized as Science Fiction in my library, I suppose since it's an alternate history, but I really think it would be better off cataloged as a mystery or just literary fiction. It has less than 3,000 ratings on Goodreads and I think it's tragically overlooked -- it was just a great story and I'm dying to know what happens to the characters. Farthing is the first book in Walton's Small Change trilogy, and I'm anxiously awaiting the sequel, Ha'penny, to see what happens next. I know Inspector Carmichael is in the second book but I'm not exactly sure what happened to Lucy and David. Farthing just a great read and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover by Jancis Robinson


Of all the books on my TBR Pile Challenge, this is the one I was dreading most, because I've owned it for so long. It was published in 1999 and I think I've owned it since about that time, so, seriously, SIXTEEN YEARS. That means I've packed and unpacked this book at least six times as I've moved from house to house and state to state (I don't think this book made it overseas to Japan; I'm pretty sure I left it in storage). So I was kind of worried that this would be a complete dud and I'd been schlepping it around unnecessarily for the last 16 years or so. 

Years ago, when I was a professional restaurant cook (technically, I've never been a chef, just a cook, since I was never in charge) I also got really interested in wine, though I never had the time or resources to really pursue it. This was also around the time that The Food Network got started. At the beginning, some of the shows were extremely low-budget. One of my favorite shows was called Grape Expectations, starring wine experts Jancis Robinson and Frank Prial. They would sit around with a black backdrop discussing wines with a couple of guest reviewers. (There was also a young blonde woman who'd present the bottle of wine; she looked either terrified or absolutely stoned. I wish I could find a video of this on YouTube!)

However, a couple of years later I left the restaurant industry after my husband joined the military and we started a family; it's pretty hard to cook and appreciate a good meal and a nice bottle of wine with a small child, a tight budget, and a husband that has to be up every morning at 5 a.m. Anyway, I must have remembered Jancis Robinson's show when I bought the book, which I then put on the shelf and promptly ignored it for the next sixteen years.

Anyway, I finally got the nerve to take it off the TBR shelf, and I read it in bits and pieces over the last week. Basically, it's a memoir about how Robinson got started as a wine journalist, and some of her career highlights (well, up to the late 1990s, when it was published.) It's really not a book one can tear through, since it's chock-full of names of wines, famous wineries, and wine bigwigs. I find some non-fiction to be very slow reads, if they're packed full of facts and not much dialogue.

I did find this book to be mostly interesting, especially the parts about her breaking into journalism and how she just kind of fell into wine writing. However, there is so much information packed into this book, it's almost like she's name-dropping famous vintages, people and places into the narrative. There's a lot of stuff crammed into this book. I actually wish she had given more details about less events -- there's about thirty years of career packed into 330 pages of text. I really feel like some parts were just skimmed over. For example, Robinson is explaining how she and her husband bought a house in the south of France and they'd really needed a rest after making a film about the famous food writer Elizabeth David -- but that's basically it, not another word about the film, though David's name pops up here and there later in the book. What about the film? Why was it so stressful? Clearly, Robinson has a lot of great anecdotes, but it seems like she's rushing through everything. Also, I did find her writing a bit pretentious at times, and there are a lot of really long sentences.  

However, I was quite amazed that I remembered as much as I did about various wines and regions. I'm not a wine expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux, and I recognized many of the names of the most famous wines and labels (though I will probably never taste most of them). I mostly read it over my lunch hours at work when I was eating some really pathetic Chinese food or leftovers, and it was rather sad, really, reading about fabulous wine tastings at which people are sipping incredibly rare and valuable vintages; meanwhile, I was probably drinking a Diet Coke and eating a tuna sandwich. Oh well -- one can hardly sip vintage wine while on one's lunch break at the library; the administration does tend to frown on intoxication at work. 

The best parts for me were when Robinson writes in detail about one particular event, like near the end of the book when she describes eating dinner at director Francis Ford Coppola's winery in Napa Valley. It's more anecdotal and less name-dropping of famous vintages. She also mentioned Grape Expectations, which I found terribly amusing -- she didn't like the TV hostess either! (It was a network decision). 

It was really quite interesting and kind of revived my interest in wines -- I've already placed an inter-library loan for a DVD of her most recent wine series, though I'm mostly interested it it as a travelogue.  If I ever have time, I would love to visit the wine regions in California and Europe that Robinson writes about.And I'm very pleased that I finally finished one of the books I've owned the longest. 

Bloggers, which books have been on your TBR shelves the longest? Do they mostly turn out to be duds, or hidden treasures? And how is everyone doing on the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge? I only have three books left to go!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene


I am not fond of the radio in my town, so though my commute to work is only 15 minutes each way, I nearly always have at least one audiobook in the car. (Sometimes more, if I'm ready to start something new and can't decide what it will be). Frequently, I use the audiobooks for some required reading for my library book group, but I also love having at least one classic on hand. I spent a couple of months this summer with The Count of Monte Cristo (36 discs!) which took a good long while.

The other day, I saw that my library now owns an audiobook version of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth. Like many women, I have had a huge crush on Colin Firth since the first time I saw the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but basically, Colin is good in almost everything. This was no exception. (And yes, we are a on a first-name basis, if only in my imagination).

This is only the second book by Graham Greene I've ever read -- years ago, I read Travels with My Aunt, which I found hilarious, I saw the movie version of The End of the Affair several years ago, and I thought it was good, but not so good that I had any overwhelming desire to read the book. But simply put, this book is just brilliant.

Basically, this is the story of Maurice Bendrix. The story begins in 1946, and Bendrix (who rarely uses his first name) has just run into an acquaintance, Henry Miles, a rather dull civil servant. During the war, Bendrix, an author, struck up a friendship with Miles' wife, Sarah, in order to glean information for a character in the book he was writing. The friendship quickly turned into a torrid affair that lasted nearly the entire war, until Sarah broke it off suddenly. Bendrix was devastated and never got over it. He uses the meeting to pump Henry for information about Sarah, but things don't turn out as planned -- in fact, the results are devastating.

This book was just beautifully written, completely heartbreaking. The characters were so real, I would not be surprised if they were based on real people and experiences. The narrator, Bendrix, is really not a nice person. First of all, he's having an affair with another man's wife, and he's also selfish, self-centered, and jealously obsessed -- so much so that it's ruining what could be the happiest time of his life. Indeed, the story of a man obsessed with his former lover is really quite disturbing. Yet the writing in this book is so eloquent, so profound, that I found myself sitting in the driveway of my car just so I could listen a little longer every day. The audiobook is only six discs, which one could easily get through in a few days or a week (depending on your commute) and I couldn't decide if I should stretch it out or finish it as quickly as possible. Firth's narration is just wonderful. I don't know if he's narrated any more audiobooks but I would probably listen to anything he was reading. 

Ralph Fiennes as Bendrix in the movie version. 
I had a couple of tiny quibbles with the book, but overall, I loved it. First, the story includes long journal entries which included detailed conversations -- that always bugs me. Who remembers this sort of thing verbatim? I understand that it's a literary device, but it always annoys me. Also there's a lot religious philosophy. Without spoiling anything, one of the characters is having a huge religious/existential crisis, and after awhile the debates about religion got a little tedious. Greene was a Catholic and several of his other novels have religion prominently featured, which may not be to everyone's taste.

I'm really beginning to like mid-century novels, and I hope to read more by Graham Greene (including a reread of Travels with My Aunt, as it's been years). I've heard Our Man in Havana is also quite funny, and I'm intrigued by Orient Express -- I'm sure it's nothing like Agatha Christie's novel but I do love books set on trains. Bloggers, what other novels by Graham Greene do you recommend?

I'm counting this book as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Only one left to go and I'm finished!