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Posts Tagged ‘France’

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I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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In the wake of my NYC trip and the presidential transition, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Multiple secret plots, Horcruxes, Quidditch and so much snogging: I love this sixth installment of Harry’s story. It is, in many ways, his last chance to be a teenager. The ending makes me weep every single time, but it’s still so good.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, David Bellos
I adore Les Mis: I fell head over heels for the musical as a teenager and loved the book when I read it a few years ago. Bellos chronicles the inspiration, writing process and publication of Hugo’s masterpiece, with fascinating asides about language, color, coinage, politics and more. Accessible and interesting for Les Mis fans. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, Adam Gidwitz
An engaging, often funny medieval tale of three French children with unusual powers – plus a greyhound who just might be a saint. Fun, clever and moving. (Also: best subtitle ever.) Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Satanic Mechanic, Sally Andrew
Tannie Maria van Harten, who writes the recipe and love advice column for her local newspaper, gets drawn into a police investigation when she sees not one, but two, men murdered before her eyes. An engaging mystery set in South Africa, which is as much about Tannie Maria’s life and relationships as it is about catching the killer. Lots of Afrikaans words and delicious food descriptions. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
The final, grim, heartbreaking, wonderful installment of a story I adore. It felt astonishingly timely, and as usual, I didn’t want it to end. Lupin’s words on Potterwatch struck me particularly this time: “Everything for which we are fighting: the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.”

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature, Shelley DeWees
Everyone knows about Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters – and they are amazing. But before (and concurrently with) Jane and Charlotte, there were other groundbreaking British writers who were female, feminist, wildly talented and generally badass. A fascinating, highly readable account of seven such women. So good. Also recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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get your jingle on sign christmas

The holiday season is in full swing over here, and the reading has slowed waaaay down. But here’s what I have been reading lately, when I’ve had the chance (and the brain space):

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, Doug Mack
What, exactly, is a U.S. territory? What rights and privileges do its residents have? Should the U.S. even have territories if it calls itself a leading democracy? Mack delves deeply into the convoluted history of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa (and travels to all of the above) to find out. Witty, thoughtful and very informative. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 14, 2017).

A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) and her crew of time-jumping historians are at it again – this time headed to Bronze Age Troy. This third book in Taylor’s series skips around wildly in history, often to confusing effect – still fun, though sometimes frustrating.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
What is the key to a meaningful life? Smith explores four “pillars” of meaning – belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence – and shares lots of data and case studies to explore how people can seek and find meaning. Thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 10, 2017).

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, Thad Carhart
I adored Carhart’s first memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. This book recounts the three years Carhart spent in Fontainebleau (near Paris) as a young boy in the 1950s, when his dad was a NATO officer. The memories are interspersed with reflections on the history and ongoing restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau. Charming, thoughtful and vividly described. (Bought at the gorgeous Albertine Books in NYC.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
This is – I’ve said it before – the book that breaks this series wide open. It all builds up to the last 70 or so pages, when suddenly everything is darker and bigger and wildly different than you thought it was. (It also introduces two of my favorite characters – Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.) LOVE.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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bay bopks coronado ca

During Commencement season, my reading has slowed down a little. But here are the books I’ve loved lately:

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, ed. Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger
King (who writes the Mary Russell series I adore) and Klinger asked a few of their fellow authors to write a second volume of stories featuring, parodying, or inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Fun, but a bit uneven; I thought the first volume (A Study in Sherlock) was better.

The Winter Garden Mystery, Carola Dunn
The second cozy mystery featuring Miss Daisy Dalrymple finds her writing about another country estate – and stumbling into another murder. I saw a few plot twists coming a mile away, but I like Daisy and enjoyed spending more time with her.

Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, Anthony Doerr
I loved this gorgeous memoir of the year Doerr spent in Rome with his wife and their infant twin sons, exploring the city and trying to write a novel. Full of beautiful sentences and vivid vignettes of a liminal time for Doerr’s family, in an endlessly fascinating city. (I also loved his novel All the Light We Cannot See.) Found at Adams Avenue Book Store in San Diego.

The Royal We, Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
American Bex Porter expects to fall in love with Oxford – but not with an English prince – during her study abroad program. I loved this sassy, frothy, full-of-heart novel about Bex, her twin sister Lacey, Prince Nicholas and his rogue brother Freddie, and the complications of either being royal or dating a royal. Funny, heartbreaking and so good. (Also: Oxford! Love.)

Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard
I loved Bard’s first memoir, Lunch in Paris, but I may have loved this one even more. A gorgeous, warmhearted account of transition, marriage, new motherhood and opening an ice cream shop in Provence. Found at Bay Books in San Diego (pictured above).

Requiem for a Mezzo, Carola Dunn
A mezzo-soprano drops dead in the middle of a concert – and of course Daisy Dalrymple is on the case. Another amusing mystery with an entertaining cast of characters (I love the Chief Inspector’s two assistants).

The Tide Watchers, Lisa Chaplin
As unrest foments on both sides of the English Channel in 1802, a young Englishwoman is caught up in a complicated game of espionage. A fast-paced, well-written story full of adventure, intrigue and romance. (Warning: there are a lot of characters to keep track of.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 30).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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cover-somewhere-in-franceBack in November, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness.

As a fan of historical fiction with an interest in World War I stories, I was captivated by the story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, who longs to make a difference in the world, but is constrained by her place in British society.

When war breaks out in Europe, Lilly defies her parents and joins the ranks of WAAC drivers, eventually getting posted to France where her sweetheart, a Scottish surgeon, is working at a field hospital. Their love story twists and turns along with the war, and Lilly does a lot of growing up out there on the front lines.

Jennifer graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my readers, and with the return of Downton Abbey here in the States, the timing is perfect.

My questions and Jen’s responses are below. Enjoy!

Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for Somewhere in France?

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a copy of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of the Great War. At the beginning of the book, Vera isn’t much older than I was then, yet she was thrust into a world of war, death and paralyzing loss when she was still so young.

I remember thinking that I would love to read the story of other women like Vera. They didn’t fight in the front lines, but they made tremendous sacrifices all the same, and their work was absolutely vital to the war effort.

How did you become interested in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the experience of women ambulance drivers?

It began when I was researching the book. I had decided that I didn’t want Lilly to become a nurse—I couldn’t conceive of a believable way for her to acquire the necessary education and training—so I started looking at the other women’s services, and the WAAC, with its wide range of occupations for members, as well as a predominantly working- and middle-class membership, was ideal.

I did find it quite difficult to unearth information on the corps and its members, however, as most official papers relating to the WAAC were destroyed in the Blitz. If anyone out there is looking for a suitable topic for a doctoral thesis on the history of the Great War, a general history of the WAAC is badly needed!

I was particularly fascinated by the ambulance drivers in the WAAC; their work was difficult, dirty and frequently dangerous, often in terrible conditions, and the suffering of their passengers must have been very distressing to witness. I suppose I could have been kinder to Lilly, and let her work as a clerk well behind the lines, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to write about!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I think it was the original forms that applicants to the WAAC filled out when applying to the corps. Those few that survive are preserved at the National Archives in the UK (here’s an example that can be viewed online).

When I looked at those forms, filled out by each applicant in her own handwriting, I felt the hundred years between us slip away: here were young women, most of whom had never been away from home, and they were volunteering to leave everything and everyone they knew in order to do their duty. I was, and continue to be, deeply humbled by their courage.

What do you find most fascinating about the World War I era?

I think it’s the way it straddles a period that feels distant yet also very familiar. The people who fought and lived through the war were Victorian by birth and by outlook, with attitudes and beliefs that can often appear somewhat foreign to modern sensibilities.

Yet until quite recently Great War veterans were alive and among us and able to share their memories. I had the honor of meeting a number of them over the years, and when I spoke to them the war didn’t seem remote at all—it might as well have happened yesterday.

Have you visited any of the places in England and France depicted in your novel?

I’ve visited all of them, with the exception of Cumberland Hall in the Lake District, as it’s entirely a product of my imagination. While I was a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, which is not far from the area of the Western Front depicted in Somewhere in France, I visited some of the battlefields in northern France and Belgium; most moving of all was Beaumont-Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I’ve also visited Paris and London many times over the years and hope to take my children for a visit there soon.

Can you tell us a bit about the follow-up novel you’re working on, about Lilly’s fearless friend Charlotte?

It begins in the spring of 1919, after Charlotte’s return to Liverpool. She resumes her position as an assistant to Eleanor Rathbone, a real-life figure who was a city councillor and one of the best-known suffragists and supporters for the working poor in Britain in that era.

We follow Charlotte as she makes new friends at the boarding house where she lives, works tirelessly to improve the lives of Liverpool’s working poor, and attempts to save an old friend from the demons that are consuming him as a result of his wartime experiences.

Jen has offered to give away a signed copy of Somewhere in France to one of my readers, so leave a comment below for a chance to win! And you can learn more about Jen and Somewhere in France at her website.

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les-mis-penguin-coverI’ve loved the story of Les Misérables for a long time – ever since my friend Kate played part of the musical’s soundtrack for me, one afternoon when we were in about eighth grade. I fell instantly in love with Jean Valjean and Fantine, Eponine and Cosette and Marius, and that plucky, saucy urchin, Gavroche. Then and now, the opening chords of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” send chills up my spine.

Back in January, after seeing the new film version (which made me weep), I picked up a beautiful hardcover edition of the book. At 1232 pages, it’s too bulky for subway reading, so I’ve been reading a few pages before breakfast nearly every morning for the last six months. And as of July 8, I am finished.

(Warning: major spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book or seen the musical or film.)

My husband asked me, early on, if the book was quite different from the musical adaptation, and at the time, I answered, “Not really.” Reading about Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and the Thenardiers, Javert and Marius and Enjolras and all the others, felt like revisiting old friends. The outlines of the plot, from Valjean’s initial encounter with the bishop to his death at the end, were familiar.

Part of the joy of reading the book was tracing the story arc I already knew. I felt a prick of recognition every time I came across a familiar detail: the silver candlesticks; Fantine cutting off her hair; the ABC Cafe; the red flag Enjolras holds up before his death. During the scenes that also appear in the musical, I could hear the songs playing in my head. (Yes, I am a serious musical theatre nerd.)

However, over 1200 pages, Hugo (obviously) has much more room to roam than the writers and producers of the musical. He uses quite a few of those pages to recount the Battle of Waterloo, muse on argot, the dialect of Paris’ criminal underworld, and explore the structure and history of Paris’ sewer system. (The latter was a low point, in several senses.) Although the subjects of the digressions are all at least distantly related to the story, I found myself wishing frequently for a red pen. The man needed a good – and ruthless – editor.

But what I loved about Les Mis – what kept me going through five parts, 1200-plus pages and all those digressions – was the deeper insight into these characters I already knew.

Rich though the musical is, it contains polished-up versions of several characters (Grantaire, Eponine, Marius), and its portraits of others, particularly the Thénardiers, often slide into stereotype. The book contains the full history of these characters, presenting them in all their complexity, filling in the broad strokes of the musical with plenty of shadow and depth.

For example, we find out what happens in the nine-year gap between Valjean’s rescue of Cosette and the rumblings of revolution in Paris (the gap is briefly mentioned midway through Act I in the musical). Hugo serves up a generous helping of political and social context for the 1832 uprising (never mind that I hadn’t heard of half the politicians he mentions). Marius’ grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand (who does not appear in the stage musical) holds the key to understanding Marius himself, and we learn vital information about all the characters, including Gavroche’s parentage, Fantine’s ill-fated love affair (which produced Cosette), and the telling fact of Javert’s birthplace (a prison).

Besides feeling virtuous for tackling such a hefty classic, I was moved by the novel’s themes of grace, hope and redemption amid squalor and despair. I loved peeling back the layers of these characters whose songs have lived in my head for years. The musical and the book are separate but intertwined entities, and I’m glad to know them both now.

Have you read or seen Les Mis? Do you feel the need to seek out the book when you see a theatrical or film adaptation of a story?

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august reads books part 2Peaches for Father Francis, Joanne Harris
Vianne Rocher returns to Lansquenet, the village where she charmed some people and upset others with chocolates and magic (in Chocolat). Eight years have wrought many changes, including a new community of Moroccan Muslims who clash with some of the locals. As Vianne and her daughters reunite with old friends and make new ones, tensions between (and within) the two sides of Lansquenet rise to the boiling point. Caught in the middle are a teenage girl, a mysterious veiled woman, and Vianne’s old nemesis, Father Francis Reynaud. Harris writes lushly and explores deep questions of home and community, strangeness and belonging, and how we often judge people before we know their stories. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 2).

Dog On It, Spencer Quinn
I loved this first book in the Chet and Bernie mystery series, narrated by Chet, failed K-9 candidate and superb sleuth (with a fabulous sense of smell). Chet is tough, no-nonsense and yet endearingly doggy – he loves treats, naps and being scratched behind the ears. He and Bernie (who’s also tough but a little down on his luck) team up to solve the mystery of a teenage girl’s disappearance, and have a few wild adventures along the way. Smart and often hilarious. I’ll be sniffing out the rest of this series.

The Ruins of Lace, Iris Anthony
Through seven different characters’ points of view, Anthony weaves the intricate story of Flemish lace in the seventeenth century. Banned by the king of France but desired by all, lace prompted bribery, theft and a flourishing smuggling industry. Love, wealth, court intrigue, even the use of dogs to run lace are all elements in the story, whose complex plot is its best feature. The characters are a bit vague (maybe because there are so many points of view) and the ending felt abrupt. Still, a fascinating glimpse into a segment of history I didn’t know about before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 1).

The Moving Finger, Agatha Christie
Jerry Burton, injured airman, takes up residence in a nondescript village with his sister to recover from his wounds. But when many of the villagers – including Jerry – begin receiving anonymous hate mail, the peace of the place is shattered. Miss Marple solves the case, as always, though she’s rather a minor character in this book. The mystery kept me guessing, but it didn’t intrigue me as much as some of Christie’s other plots. Still fun.

The House of Velvet and Glass, Katherine Howe
I loved Howe’s debut, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and also enjoyed her second book. Sibyl Allston, daughter of a posh Boston family whose mother and sister died on the Titanic, struggles to deal with her grief, manage her father’s house and help her dissolute brother (who has just been expelled from Harvard). There are also flashbacks to her father’s seafaring youth and his time in Shanghai. A fascinating glimpse into World War I-era Boston and its Spiritualist movement (seances, scrying glasses, opium dens, etc.), a sharp contrast of two worlds (strait-laced Back Bay and seedy Chinatown), and musings on whether we really determine our own fate.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
A wry, heartbreaking story of two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. Never maudlin, though sometimes I felt the sarcasm veered into callousness. Hazel, the narrator, is keen-eyed and witty, yet intensely vulnerable, as is Gus, who shows up at a cancer support group one day and catches her eye. They’re trying to live while knowing they won’t see adulthood, and this makes everything rather fraught, even while they attempt to enjoy being teenagers. Wise and sad and yes, sometimes funny.

What are you reading these days?

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links. Graphic by Sarah.

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