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April 2017 Reading Round-Up

Being busy has affected reading time, as busy tends to, but it’s been good. And I’m still knee-deep in classics and loving it.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Emma Henderson: The Valentine House – Mathilde has worked at the holiday home of the Valentine family most of her life and has kept a secret for much of that time; George travels to the house having lost his parents and looking for an escape. Okay, but lacking in story.

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Helen Irene Young: The May Queen – In her younger years, May’s sister abandoned the family, having fallen pregnant, now, as war comes to Britain, May leaves home for the Wrens in London. Good factual history, just needed more detailing.

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Jennifer Donnelly: Revolution – Whilst in Paris working on her high school thesis, Andi discovers the diary of a young woman near the heart of the French Revolution. Lots of anachronisms, but the latter section is fun.

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Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields – Henry looks back on his childhood, his father who tried so hard to be a writer, his distant relationships with mother and sister, and his own attempts to be someone. Utterly fantastic.

The Lewis was the stand out this month; it’ll very likely make my best of list, it’s just incredible. The Donnelly I’d been wanting to read it for a relatively long time, having heard much about it and having enjoyed Donnelly’s A Gathering Light (A Northern Light in the USA) in my younger years; it wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it would be. As for ongoing reads, I’ve Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride on the go; she was to be our next author in Southampton and whilst that event has been cancelled I’ll be finishing and reviewing the book. I’ve made a rough start on Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline, which I’ll be prioritising soon, and I’m quite a way through Dark Aemilia.

Quotation Report

None this time.

A screenshot from The Sims 3 of a disco

A bit of a diversion from round ups, but this post is post number 1000. Getting on for 4.5 years since the post I wrote to celebrate 500 posts. (I used the same picture then – I still remember it taking a long time to set everything up; please don’t mind me re-using it here!) I should have hit 1000 last week but as I had to take a short blogging break the date got moved back. Here are the (all important?) stats:

Reviews: 391
Discussion posts: 212
Non-review posts on an individual book: 46
Comments: ~4500 (that aren’t my own replies)
Most viewed post: What Happened To Faina At The End Of The Snow Child?
Most reviewed author: Elizabeth Chadwick and Shannon Stacey (9 books each)
Earliest book reviewed: Utopia (1516)

I’m looking forward to more classics and some award shortlists – apart from the Turner Smith I have Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) on my list. On the shortlist front, Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and Kit de Waal’s My Name Is Leon are three of the contenders for best début for The Bookseller’s British Book Awards – and I’ll be reviewing them over the next couple of weeks.

What have you been reading recently?

 
Helen Irene Young – The May Queen

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Women and war.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 214
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-539-99706-1
First Published: 25th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

May lives in the Cotswolds with her family, but one day Sophie leaves and life changes; May can’t shake the feeling that the boy she likes, Christopher, is the reason for Sophie’s disappearance. Deciding to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, life in London results in new friends and new tragedies, but also the potential for marriage – it’s just that May can’t quite see herself married to John while thoughts of Christopher linger in the background.

There is a lot to like about this book. Looking at World War Two from the point of view of a female member of the military, Young’s research is evident and there’s much here that isn’t often discussed in fiction at the moment. You’ll take away a few things you’ve learned but it never feels as though you’re being told too much.

The story itself is good, too. Besides the tragedies, which in view of the page count do happen quite often (besides the fatalities of war), Young presents a great little study of home life. May’s relationship with her mother is fraught by criticism and what seems to be a lack of love from mother to daughter, yet at other times Ma gives much; the effect is such that Young provides you enough to really ask yourself what is going on – it’s up to you to decide the dynamics of the relationship.

Besides this, there’s a good balance of other domestic and social points – runaway sisters and illicit affairs looked at alongside the every-day of war, basement parties, being out and about when sirens could sound at any minute.

Unfortunately there is a lack of detailing in the book. The May Queen does not have any filler sections but the writing is disjointed. The book reads as an extensive plan for a novel, so you’ll have a fair sense of what’s going on but because the scenes aren’t fleshed out enough there can be confusion. The writing is bare in the same way as the detailing.

Where do the characters stand in this? Some are mostly developed, others less so. The book shines best during the second section, set in London, where the story moves with the new location, separating May from her family and allowing you to get to know her better.

This is a good look at the Wrens and the way people lived through war, just a sparse look. It will appeal most to those wanting to read about women’s roles in the war and the way life continued throughout.

I received this book for review.

Related Books

None yet.

 
Emma Henderson – The Valentine House

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Houses, history, family, and secrets.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 335
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-444-70402-0
First Published: 6th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 26th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

The Valentines own a house in the French Alps and summer there each year. The house remains in the family for decades and so in the nearby village there is a lot of knowledge and rumour spread and over time many residents employed; if female, the mistress of the house looks for very plain, ugly women so that her husband won’t be led astray. Mathilde is one of those employed and ends up spending most of her summers working at Arete. But there is more than meets the eye in Lady C’s wish for plainness and there are more tales behind the elusive Margaret and younger Daisy than people will know.

The Valentine House is a dual plotline book of family issues, history, and climbing, set in France. It switches between Mathilde – both in her early and later years – and a Valentine descendant called George.

This book is an easy read. Full of the colloquial language of the times, it can be fun and often poetic. Many sentences ultimately rhyme; it’s not that the book is written in verse, but there are enough rhymes here to believe that it may have been a stylistic choice.

It is hard to say whether the book is a success from an objective viewpoint – The Valentine House does not have much of a story arc, and depending on what you were hoping for or were thinking might happen, the reveals near the end may not be satisfying. There is a point roughly two-thirds of the way through where Henderson deliberately turns away from giving away an important detail (think the ‘I didn’t want to listen to what the person was saying’ device), which does mean you get to enjoy more of the atmosphere (which is great) but may cause some frustration. At the beginning of the book the idea of ‘uglies’ seems to be very important on a larger scale than the English family’s hiring practises, however as the novel continues it ceases to be looked into. This may well have been a case of nothing from the start, so to speak, but with a nod towards disfigurement, rather than plain looks, in several people, and given Henderson’s previous book, it does seem as though something has been left out.

Beyond this, apart from times of confusion, it’s an enjoyable read. The writing, as said, is rather lovely, especially so at times, and there is a lot to love about the aspects of climbing and general Alps history. You wouldn’t necessarily call this a book about climbing, and not a book about families and climbing, either, but nevertheless the sort of detailing Henderson has included about climbing means it’s likely to satisfy those who enjoy the sport as well as those simply interested in the idea of it. The people might be fictional but the delights as well as the sorrows, the dangers, are very true to history and life, so there is an element of learning here to be had. Nods are given to the Alpine Club and the experiences of individuals, and as the sections about mountaineering occur in both the the early twentieth century as well as the later twentieth century narratives, you get more than one slice of how the sport has changed. And you get the benefit of learning not just how much safety improved but inevitably, as the book’s ‘present day’ narrative is in the 1970s, how much further we have come now.

Read the book for the family saga aspect of it and you’ll find yourself a happy – for you if not for the characters – afternoon. It’s in the family that the idea of the story arc can take a back-seat – if you are reading for the saga, you may well be happy with the arc as it is. As the book isn’t very long compared to other sagas the generations are written both linearly and muddled together (in a carefully considered way) meaning that it does bridge the divide between genres. This said, you are highly likely to prefer one narrative to the other which may affect this. Mathilde’s is the one most likely to inspire as it has a lot more going on than George’s, which for most of the time can seem more a device for Mathilde than a story in itself.

And the family is most definitely a dysfunctional one. Henderson has stuck firmly to the concept of the rich family holiday; she has gone to town with it and done it with aplomb. The characters are stereotypical insofar as literature goes which in this case is a great aid rather than a drawback. There’s an interesting semblance of cut-out along with fine development, with Henderson leaning a little on the stereotypes so that she can spend more time on the not-so-stereotypical, a sort of ‘these are the basics, now let me give you the specific details’. Whilst the characters may not all stay in mind beyond the book – some definitely will do – together they make the book what it is in terms of theme.

In the case of the reveal and how satisfying it may or may not be, it’s worth noting that Henderson takes a very different fork in the road than you might expect. For some it may come out of left field, for others it will be a wonderful difference – this is where personal opinion must trump any talk of objectivity.

It’s hard to place The Valentine House. It’s easy to get through and a good read, but it does seem a missed opportunity for various reasons. Nevertheless there will be some readers who find much to like about it and it must be said the location and atmosphere is lovely. This is a book to read up on before trying yourself to see how you’ll likely fare.

I received this book for review.

Related Books

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Project Charlotte

Charlotte Turner Smith

For many reasons, I’ve never liked my full name. But recently I’ve been looking to feel a bit more comfortable with it and that has been bolstered by historical figures I’ve discovered. Brontë, of course, but also Perkins Gilman and, literature aside, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. I’m never going to revert to the name myself but I can at least feel better about it, align it with some great writers.

To this end I’ve decided to focus on well-known writers, in the hope of developing an appreciation and positive relation. I’m choosing writers whose work is in the public domain for ease, the limited numbers, and because of my interest in history… and because it costs a lot less to read free books.

So I took myself to Project Gutenberg and searched to catalogue. There are a number of Charlottes listed so I’m going to focus on those for which there’s some information. My list is short – I think that’s best, and is as follows: Brontë, Perkins Gilman, Turner Smith, Lennox, Mary Yonge. It doesn’t go as far back in history as I’d like – Turner Smith and Lennox were born in the early decades of 1700s – but then I’m dealing with historical texts written by women. I’m also perhaps sort of cheating as I’m half-way through my second Gilman and have read two Brontës. But I couldn’t really leave them out.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading Turner Smith, Lennox, and Yonge because I’d forgotten about them. Turner Smith I first discovered some years ago but her book, Emmeline (a Cinderella-type story) was only available online in scanned fragments of old editions and about as much in print. In the years since, Project Gutenberg have produced a text – finding that made my day. There aren’t aren’t notes in regards to sourcing but it’s the best yet.

Lennox I only knew from seeing The Female Quixote listed on Girl Ebooks. Having read that it’s a parody of Cervantes I’m very much looking forward to it. Granted, my knowledge of the story is limited to Nik Kershaw’s song and the bookmark in my father’s copy that never moved from 1/4 of the way through, but it’s enough. It also appears to be shorter and there’s no need to worry about finding the right translation.

Yonge I heard of through well, you guys, and it will be The Heir of Redclyffe that I’ll be reading. In researching her I discovered she lived and died in Hampshire so I may make a trip to see her house and grave. The novel is mentioned in Little Women.

Charlotte Niese, a German writer, was looking like a possibility, but there’s only one story available in English and I’m not so sure there’s any fiction to be had. She campaigned for women’s rights but Wikipedia states she wrote only within socially acceptable boundaries. If, once I’ve read the above five authors, I want to continue, I’ll consider Niese; I’ve got to remember that as much as my first thought was to compile a list of every literary Charlotte, non-fiction texts don’t quite match the concept I had in mind.

Still to decide: do I extend my reading to other countries’ versions of the name? I considered ‘Carlotta’ but I actually rather like the one so it wouldn’t really fit what I’m trying to do and as previously alluded to, it’s difficult to work with translations.

I’ve no dates, no schedule in mind, it’s more a general reading goal. I may or may not post updates – most likely I’ll just review the books.

Any famous literary Charlottes I’ve missed?

 
Back Monday

As above. The reviews I had scheduled for this week will be online next week.

 

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