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!

Thursday, September 17, 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!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

No Name by Wilkie Collins

When I posted my list for the recent Classics Club spin, I got more comments recommending No Name by Wilkie Collins than any other book on my list. It got me really excited about reading it, so I've put off my Spin Selection (which turned out to be Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell, which I'm also excited about) and last week I dove right into No Name. I was traveling last weekend so a big fat Victorian sensation novel was just the thing. 

Set in the 1840s, No Name is the story of two sisters, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone, and how they are cruelly robbed of their inheritance due to a terrible quirk of fate. Bereft after the death of their father, and shocked to learn they will inherit nothing, everyone expects the two sisters to live in genteel poverty as governesses. But the younger sister, Magdalen, isn't about to take this misfortune lying down. Her appeals to an estranged uncle are fruitless, so she decides to take matters into her own hands and use her acting talents to make her own fortune and leaves her family. Meanwhile, Magdalen has chance encounter with scoundrelly relative, Captain Wragge. She decides to turn the tables and use his dubious talents to her advantage. She's determined to extract revenge and restore her fortune. 

I think I loved this book even more than my two previous reads by Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which are by far his best-known works. No Name is more than 600 pages, but I zoomed through it in on a few days (of course I did spend quite a bit of time in airport and airplanes). Nevertheless, this book really kept my attention.  Although it was full of amazing coincidences and melodrama (it is a Victorian sensation novel, after all), I loved how the relationship of Magdalen and Captain Wragge developed, and the book had tons of great plot twists. I could have finished it sooner but I couldn't stay up all night reading it after I returned from my trip. It is so annoying how work cuts into one's reading time!

This was a great, fun read and I'm really looking forward to Armadale which is the last Wilkie Collins novel on my Classics Club list. I think I'll also have to add Basil to my next Classics Club list which I'm mentally preparing as I only have 15 books left!

Thursday, September 3, 2015


Don't you love the button? The artwork is by Abigail Larson

Perfect timing! I'm nearly finished with Wilkie Collins' No Name and it's already time for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) X! Hosted by the Estella Society, participants read mysteries, thrillers, and suspense, gothic, dark fantasy, and supernatural works of literature during September and October.

Looking over my TBR shelves (and in particular my Classics Club list), here are my potential reads:

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Tales of Mystery and the Macabre by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Drood by Dan Simmons

And these are books I might possibly check out from the library:

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott
Armadale by Wilkie Collins
Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I'm signing up for Peril the Second, which is two books. I may also read some short stories, either by M. R. James or E. F. Benson.

Anyone else signing up for RIP X?  What are you reading?