Table for Two – Amor Towles

Table for Two – Amor Towles

I like Towles, my favourite is Rules of Civility, but I have read all of his novels. Table for Two is short stories and I listened to it (this version)

Here’s the blurb …

From the bestselling author of The Lincoln Highway, A Gentleman in Moscow, and Rules of Civility, a richly detailed and sharply drawn collection of stories set in New York and Los Angeles.

The millions of readers of Amor Towles are in for a treat as he shares some of his shorter six stories set in New York City and a novella in Los Angeles. The New York stories, most of which are set around the turn of the millennium, take up everything from the death-defying acrobatics of the male ego, to the fateful consequences of brief encounters, and the delicate mechanics of compromise which operate at the heart of modern marriages.

In Towles’s novel, Rules of Civility, the indomitable Evelyn Ross leaves New York City in September, 1938, with the intention of returning home to Indiana. But as her train pulls into Chicago, where her parents are waiting, she instead extends her ticket to Los Angeles. Told from seven points of view, “Eve in Hollywood” describes how Eve crafts a new future for herself—and others—in the midst of Hollywood’s golden age.

Throughout the stories, two characters often find themselves sitting across a table for two where the direction of their futures may hinge upon what they say to each other next.

Written with his signature wit, humor, and sophistication, Table for Two is another glittering addition to Towles’s canon of stylish and transporting historical fiction.

I really enjoyed these stories – in particular Eve in Hollywood (it is a continuation of Rules of Civility). All of the stories are beautifully written. Sometimes witty, sometimes poignant, always clever and sometimes a bit sneaky.

A review.

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Queen McBeth – Val McDermid

Queen McBeth – Val McDermid

When I was in Edinburgh, I wanted to read something by a Scottish writer set in Scotland. I found a fabulous book store – Topping and Co – and I bought a signed copy of Queen Macbeth.

Here’s the blurb …

Shakespeare fed us the myth of the Macbeths as murderous conspirators. But now Val McDermid drags the truth out of the shadows, exposing the patriarchal prejudices of history. Expect the unexpected . . .

A thousand years ago in an ancient Scottish landscape, a woman is on the run with her three companions – a healer, a weaver and a seer. The men hunting her will kill her – because she is the only one who stands between them and their violent ambition. She is no she is the first queen of Scotland, married to a king called Macbeth.

As the net closes in, we discover a tale of passion, forced marriage, bloody massacre and the harsh realities of medieval Scotland. At the heart of it is one strong, charismatic woman, who survived loss and jeopardy to outwit the endless plotting of a string of ruthless and power-hungry men. Her struggle won her a country. But now it could cost her life.

Macbeth was one of the assigned texts when I studied English Literature at school, I still remember some of my quotes.

Lay on McDuff and damned be he who first cries “Hold! Enough!”

This is not the story that you know, in fact it is set after Shakespeare’s MacBeth (with flashbacks to that time). I enjoyed reading it. There is lots of detail about medieval Scotland – particularly the weaving and the herb lore). The writing is evocative; you feel cold, hungry, scared and angry (at the way women are treated). And I will just add that the ending is unexpected (I don’t want to ruin it for anyone).

A review

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A Small Country – Sian James

A Small Country – Sian James

A friend recommended this one, one of those forgotten novels of the 20th century (it was first published in 1979), but the action takes place in 1914.

Here’s the blurb …

A Small Country is the story of the Evans family, farmers in Carmarthenshire. In the summer of 1914 son Tom returns from Oxford to find the family falling apart. His handsome father has gone to live with schoolmistress Miriam Lewis, who is to have his child. His mother, broken-hearted, lies ill in bed, while his beautiful sister Catrin longs to leave for London and art college. Soon Tom’s university friend Edward will arrive to holiday with them, half-aware of his attraction to Catrin, but already engaged to Rose, a supporter of the Suffragettes. And Tom himself is in debt and disillusioned with his proposed legal career. He would like to manage Hendre Ddu, the family farm, but finds his family troubles and the approach of war set him on a very different course.

When I sat down to write my thoughts, I was astonished to find it published in 1979. It seems so of its time (world war one, women’s choices are limited – marriage, nursing or teaching). However, I did think Miriam Lewis was quite modern – she didn’t care about being married. The world-building was very good, it felt very much like rural Wales in the first world war. It is not a particularly happy novel, lives are hard – especially for women, and the characters all seem to struggle on in isolation. However, it is beautifully written and highlights a different time and place (lost to us now).

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The Ministry of Time – Kaliane Bradley

The Ministry of Time – Kaliane Bradley

This is the first of my holiday reading (I went to the UK and France). This book was everywhere, so I decided to give it a go.

Here’s the blurb …

A time travel romance, a spy thriller, a workplace comedy, and an ingenious exploration of the nature of power and the potential for love to change it all: Welcome to The Ministry of Time, the exhilarating debut novel by Kaliane Bradley.

In the near future, a civil servant is offered the salary of her dreams and is, shortly afterward, told what project she’ll be working on. A recently established government ministry is gathering “expats” from across history to establish whether time travel is feasible—for the body, but also for the fabric of space-time.

She is tasked with working as a “bridge”: living with, assisting, and monitoring the expat known as “1847” or Commander Graham Gore. As far as history is concerned, Commander Gore died on Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to the Arctic, so he’s a little disoriented to be living with an unmarried woman who regularly shows her calves, surrounded by outlandish concepts such as “washing machines,” “Spotify,” and “the collapse of the British Empire.” But with an appetite for discovery, a seven-a-day cigarette habit, and the support of a charming and chaotic cast of fellow expats, he soon adjusts.

Over the next year, what the bridge initially thought would be, at best, a horrifically uncomfortable roommate dynamic, evolves into something much deeper. By the time the true shape of the Ministry’s project comes to light, the bridge has fallen haphazardly, fervently in love, with consequences she never could have imagined. Forced to confront the choices that brought them together, the bridge must finally reckon with how—and whether she believes—what she does next can change the future.

An exquisitely original and feverishly fun fusion of genres and ideas, The Ministry of Time asks: What does it mean to defy history, when history is living in your house? Kaliane Bradley’s answer is a blazing, unforgettable testament to what we owe each other in a changing world.

I enjoyed this novel. The writing, the world-building, and the characters were all magnificent. It made me think about time travel in a new way – how hard would it be to travel to the future (particularly the one who came from the 16th century – although she didn’t seem to find it difficult) and then have to acclimatise and fit in?

When I was in London, I went to the maritime museum and there was a whole section on Franklin’s Lost Expedition – they have the Victory Point Note and many artifacts from the doomed expedition. It was very interesting.

While this is science fiction – there is time travel after all, it’s probably more crime, thriller or adventure. It could also be called a romantasy (but I think it has more to say than a typical romantasy). There is something mysterious going on at the Ministry of Time – strange people and weapons. So if SciFi is not your thing, don’t be put off you will still enjoy this novel. It has things to say about the strength of the human spirit, and about climate change, and about selfishness or self-repservation.

A review.

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Absolutely and Forever – Rose Tremain

Absolutely and Forever – Rose Tremain

I have read Tremain’s Restoration, which I enjoyed and then a friend recommended this one (very different from Restoration)

Here’s the blurb …

A piercing short novel of thwarted love and true friendship from one of our greatest living writers

Marianne Clifford, 15, only child of a peppery army colonel and his vain wife, Lal, falls helplessly and absolutely for Simon Hurst, 18, whose cleverness and physical beauty suggest that he will go forward into a successful and monied future, helped on by doting parents. But fate intervenes. Simon’s plans are blown off course, and Marianne is forced to bury her dreams of a future together.

Narrating her own story, characterising herself as ignorant and unworthy, Marianne’s telling use of irony and smart thinking gradually suggest to us that she has underestimated her own worth. We begin to believe that – in the end, supported by her courageous Scottish friend, Petronella – she will find the life she never stops craving. But what we can’t envisage is that beneath his blithe exterior, Simon Hurst has been nursing a secret which will alter everything.

This is the second novel I have read recently where a character can’t move on – the first being Good Material (It’s not my favourite plot device).

The setting – 50s and 60s England, was fabulous and I loved the relationship between Marianne and Hugo. The writing is exquisite, people are captured in a few deft sentences.

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The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England – Brandon Sanderson

The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England – Brandon Sanderson

My daughter loves Brandon Sanderson novels and when I saw that this was a stand-alone novel and not too thick, I decided to give it a go.

Here’s the blurb …

A man awakens in a clearing in what appears to be medieval England with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or why he is there. Chased by a group from his own time, his sole hope for survival lies in regaining his missing memories, making allies among the locals, and perhaps even trusting in their superstitious boasts. His only help from the “real world” should have been a guidebook entitled The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England, except his copy exploded during transit. The few fragments he managed to save provide clues to his situation, but can he figure them out in time to survive?

This was lots of fun to read – witty and a bit tongue in cheek. In fact, it reminded me of Jasper FForde’s The Last Dragonslayer (the style or the humour not the plot). I think it would make a great movie or TV series.

A review

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The Late Mrs. Willoughby – Claudia Gray

The Late Mrs Willoughby – Claudia Gray

I was given this book for mothers day. I have already read the first novel The Murder of Mr. Wickham. I was keen to read this one and I see there is also a third one.

Here’s the blurb …

The suspenseful sequel to The Murder of Mr. Wickham, which sees Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney reunited, and with another mystery to solve: the dreadful poisoning of the scoundrel Willoughby’s new wife.

“An absolute page-turner full of well-plotted mystery and hints of simmering romance. . . . More of the Jane Austen characters we love (as well as those we love to hate).” —Mia P. Manansala, author of Arsenic and Adobo

Catherine and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey are not entirely pleased to be sending their eligible young daughter Juliet out into the world again: the last house party she attended, at the home of the Knightleys, involved a murder—which Juliet helped solve. Particularly concerning is that she intends to visit her new friend Marianne Brandon, who’s returned home to Devonshire shrouded in fresh scandal—made more potent by the news that her former suitor, the rakish Mr. Willoughby, intends to take up residence at his local estate with his new bride.

Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley are thrilled that their eldest son, Jonathan—who, like his father, has not always been the most socially adept—has been invited to stay with his former schoolmate, John Willoughby. Jonathan himself is decidedly less taken with the notion of having to spend extended time under the roof of his old bully, but that all changes when he finds himself reunited with his fellow amateur sleuth, the radiant Miss Tilney. And when shortly thereafter, Willoughby’s new wife—whom he married for her fortune—dies horribly at the party meant to welcome her to town.

With rumors flying and Marianne—known to be both unstable and previously jilted by the dead woman’s newly made widower—under increased suspicion, Jonathan and Juliet must team up once more to uncover the murderer. But as they collect clues and close in on suspects, eerie incidents suggest that the killer may strike again, and that the pair are in far graver danger than they or their families could imagine.

This is a fun crime novel set amongst the characters of Jane Austen novels with a bit of Jane Austen style in the writing. I think if you’re a fan of Jane Austen and/or crime, then you will enjoy this novel.

Willoughby was suitably caddish, Mrs. Jennings enthusiastic, but kind, Colonel Brandon thoughtful, and Lady Middleton thoughtless. The characters are how you think they should be.

A review.

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Soldier Sailor – Claire Kilroy

Soldier Sailor – Claire Kilroy

This one was recommended by a friend and I managed to get a library copy on my Kobo.

Here’s the blurb …

In her first novel in over a decade, Claire Kilroy takes readers deep into the early days of motherhood. Exploring the clash of fierce love with a seismic shift in identity, Kilroy conjures the raw, tumultuous emotions of a new mother, as her marriage strains and she struggles with questions of equality, autonomy, and creativity.

Soldier Sailor is a tale of boundless love and relentless battle, a mother’s bedtime story to her son, Sailor, recounting their early years together. Caught in the grip of her toddler’s seemingly endless terrible twos, Soldier doesn’t know who she is anymore. She spends her days in baby groups, playgrounds, and supermarkets. She hardly sees her husband, who has taken to working late most nights. A chance encounter with a former colleague feels like a lifeline to the person she used to be.

Tender and harrowing, Kilroy’s modern masterpiece portrays parenthood in all its agony and ardent joy.

This is all told from the perspective of the mother (Soldier) as if she is speaking to her son (Sailor). If you’re in the midst of those early years this might be a bit too much. I remember the rage, and the lost identity and the crushing fatigue. It’s very well-written and captures all of those feelings, the despair and the joy, how hard it is to get out of the house, the lack of support, etc.

A review.

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Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

After having successfully listened to A Tale of Two Cities, I decided to continue with the Dickens theme and listen to Our Mutual Friend. All 34 hours of it (I did listen to it at 1.2 speed).

Years ago I watched the BBC adaptation, which I really enjoyed and I always intended on reading it. But it is enormous and I was a bit daunted. However, the audio version (this one) was great.

Here’s the blurb …

Following his father’s death John Harmon returns to London to claim his inheritance, but he finds he is eligible only if he marries Bella Wilfur. To observe her character he assumes another identity and secures work with his father’s foreman, Mr Boffin, who is also Bella’s guardian.

Disguise and concealment play an important role in the novel and individual identity is examined within the wider setting of London life: in the 1860s the city was aflame with spiralling financial speculation while thousands of homeless scratched a living from the detritus of the more fortunate-indeed John Harmon’s father has amassed his wealth by recycling waste.

I really enjoyed listening to this. There are lots of stories intertwined, but at the core it is about identity and how we present ourselves to the world. There is fabulous dialogue, beautiful willful women, self-sacrificing women, greedy people and lovely people.

Here’s a beautiful review (about why you should read Dickens and Our Mutual Friend)

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The Library of Borrowed Hearts – Lucy Gilmour

The Library of Borrowed Hearts – Lucy Gilmour

I can’t remember where I first heard of this novel (I follow a lot of different blogs). Anyway, it was one of the first books I bought on my new Kobo.

Here’s the blurb …

A.J. Fikry meets The Bookish Life of Nina Hill in this charming, hilarious, and moving novel about the way books bring lonely souls together.

Two young lovers. Sixty long years. One bookish mystery worth solving.

Librarian Chloe Sampson has been struggling: to take care of her three younger siblings, to find herself, to make ends meet. She’s just about at the end of her rope when she stumbles across a rare edition of a book from the 1960s at the local flea market. Deciding it’s a sign of her luck turning, she takes it home with her—only to be shocked when her cranky hermit of a neighbor swoops in and offers to buy it for an exorbitant price. Intrigued, Chloe takes a closer look at the book only to find notes scribbled in the margins between two young lovers back when the book was new…one of whom is almost definitely Jasper Holmes, the curmudgeon next door.

When she begins following the clues left behind, she discovers this isn’t the only old book in town filled with romantic marginalia. This kickstarts a literary scavenger hunt that Chloe is determined to see through to the end. What happened to the two tragic lovers who corresponded in the margins of so many different library books? And what does it have to do with the old, sad man next door—who only now has begun to open his home and heart to Chloe and her siblings?

In a romantic tale that spans the decades, Chloe discovers that there’s much more to her grouchy old neighbor than meets the eye. And in allowing herself to accept the unexpected friendship he offers, she learns that some love stories begin in the unlikeliest of places.

This novel was lovely and charming. Full of bookish detail and sympathetic characters.

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