Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Shuttle

I just finished reading The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett and I have to say, it might be my favorite Persephone book yet. I know for a fact that I have said this before about other books, but I may really mean it this time. It combines elements that are reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Edith Wharton, features a heroine that is equal to any of their classic characters, and just may be the latest addition to my list of favorite books of all time.

The Shuttle takes place in the early 20th century, when American heiresses were just beginning to marry into the British aristocracy. The shuttle of the title refers to the steamer ships that crossed the Atlantic, ferrying prospective brides and bridegrooms back and forth across the pond. The novel opens during the first wave of this phenomenon. The wealthy Vanderpoel family (fictional counterpart to the Vanderbilts) marries their eldest daughter Rosalie to Lord Nigel Anstruthers, an evil philanderer hiding behind the mask of a respectable title. As soon as the sweet, simple Rosy reaches England, she's easily overpowered by her husband, cut off from her family and money, and forced to live a reclusive life in Nigel's dilapidated manor house, Stornham Court. This section of the novel is pure Gothic fare.

Cut to twelve years later when younger sister Bettina Vanderpoel enters the scene as both the heroine of the novel and the hero of the day. Unlike Rosy, Betty is clever, composed, and courageous. She is close with her millionaire father and has inherited his practical business acumen along with his money. She brings both with her to find and rescue Rosy. She sweeps into the Gothic decay of Stornham and immediately begins to rehabilitate both the house and her sister. Gothic elements reappear as Nigel tries to plot and scheme against Betty, but they are always counterbalanced by her modern outlook, one that comes from a world where there's law and order and where people cannot be held captive against their will. This push and pull between the Gothic and the modern reflects the similar dynamic that occurs as American and English cultures mingle throughout the novel. Of course, there is a climatic scene in which Betty nearly does fall prey to Gothic horror at Nigel's hands--I won't reveal any spoilers, though. This is a true page-turner that's satisfying on many levels. (Did I mention that there is a romantic male lead who is at least as dreamy as Mr. Darcy? And characters with wonderfully ridiculous names like Ughtread and Mount Dunstan?) I can't recommend  this book highly enough!

Do you have a "favorite" Persephone book? Or at least a current favorite that has yet to be dethroned?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is the story of a group of kindergarten parents whose seemingly petty schoolyard dramas hide deeper secrets that escalate into a criminal act. That's not exactly the kind of story that would normally attract me, but I was intrigued enough to give it a try after learning that Reese Witherspoon had optioned the rights and is making it into a miniseries starring herself and Nicole Kidman. Still, I was skeptical as I started the book. I had just come off a string of mediocre reads and, for the first hundred pages or so, it seemed like this might be another one. As the momentum began to build, though, I found myself more and more drawn in. This turned out to be a completely enjoyable book that left me thinking about it days after finishing.

My initial lack of interest in the book stems from its synopsis, which makes it sound like something campy and melodramatic. Instead, it's smartly written on many levels. Moriarty's characterization and dialogue is pitch perfect. She balances out the novel's darker plot points with many funny moments, as well as with scenes that offer spot-on commentary on various modern-day social issues and themes. Even better is the way the novel is structured. In most mysteries, the plot surrounding a crime leaves the reader trying to figure out who did it and what the motive was. Here, not only are those two questions unknown, but the actual details of crime itself it a big unknown until the end of the novel. Moriarty cleverly unravels this bit by bit throughout the book. There are a few surprise twists that I was able to guess, plus one final twist that I did not see coming at all. This is a perfect summer read that's thought-provoking in an entertaining way. I can easily imagine this translating onto screen and can't wait to see the miniseries adaptation.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Light of Paris

In my last post I talked about  the start of summer reading season. While my own summer reading this year will include, as always, its fair share of classics and British middlebrow novels, I'll also be making a point to read at least a few of the season's new releases. The first such book that I can  recommend is The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown, author of the very good debut novel, The Weird Sisters.

 In The Light of Paris, Brown alternates between two eras with parallel story lines-- a plot structure that I always enjoy. The contemporary half of the story, set in 1999, centers around Madeline, a thirty-something woman who has lost herself by trying to conform to the expectations of others, first to please her cold, high-society mother, then to please equally cold, perfectionist husband whom she married out of convenience. As she contemplates the possibility of a divorce, she returns to her childhood home in a quaint Southern town where she reassesses her life and rediscovers her love of art. While there, she also discovers a set of journals kept by her grandmother, Margie, during the 1920s. They tell the story of how Margie escaped similarly rigid societal expectations by spending a year living in Bohemian Paris.

Neither Margie's nor Madeline's story lines are perfect--the way the former's ended left me a bit unsatisfied while the latter's personal journey felt repetitive at times, with many scenes in which her "heart aches" as she remembers choices from her past. In spite of that, both heroines are likable and easy to root for, and novel's wonderfully drawn settings more than make up for any other imperfections. It turns out that alternating scenes of a charming Southern town and Jazz Age Paris make the perfect combination for a enjoyable summer read. The beautiful descriptions of Paris were especially captivating--almost enough to convert this Anglophile to a Francophile, at least temporarily. This is an ideal beach read, although it's one that may make you want to leave the beach early to go home and rewatch Amelie or Midnight in Paris just to soak up more of the French atmosphere.

(A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher. All thoughts and opinions are my own.)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Fancies

We're finally getting into summer reading season. Are there any books you're especially looking forward to in the coming months? Between several trips to the library, a small spree at my local bookstore, and an order with a few new Persephones on the way, I should be all set for at least the next month. I'm particularly looking forward to reading this short story collection, which I picked up entirely based on seeing the following quote: "I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading." I couldn't agree more.

(Some new succulent plants in two vintage head vases. I'm hoping they'll thrive as a result of being placed near the Nancy Mitford books.)

Speaking of hot chocolate, it's completely out of season but I've been on a kick of making it from scratch lately and this recipe hits it out of the park.

Some of the best zingers from Jane Austen.

And a newly discovered site that reveals the secret life of punctuation, plus a BBC interview that includes an interesting discussion about getting punctuation to look the way that you want something to sound.


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