Friday, August 29, 2014

The Churchills in Love and War by Mary S. Lovell (2011)

I enjoyed reading this book; it was entertaining and informative.  But it was sort of like a Churchillian aquifer and as Mary Lovell drew more and more from the glorious family Churchill, the flatter and more factoid the book became.  Interestingly, the Edwardian years were the most interesting; I guess that was when the Churchills and Marlboroughs and Jeromes and such were in their heyday.  By World War II, they were definitely in descendent – and that has some wow factor since Winston Churchill was one of the three most famous men in the world (after Hitler and FDR).
Lovell tackled a giant subject though, and I think overall it was a success.  Because the cast of characters was so huge, it could have been difficult to make everyone stand out, but she drops in bits of trivia throughout that painted everyone with colorful strokes.  Clementine Churchill’s love of tennis, for example, on page 334: “Her great talent was tennis, and she always enjoyed staying somewhere where she could get a good game.”  Or this bit about the eventually insufferable and boorish Randolph Churchill:  “It was there” – Hearst Castle – “that Randolph lost his virginity to Tilly Losch, the exquisite Hungarian dancer and actress.”  It was bits like this that brought the book to life.  She’s tackled a large cast before – she wrote about the Mitford family, and that can’t have been easy.  But I remember quite liking that book too.  The Mitfords, being Churchill cousins, make several appearances, as does Kick Kennedy (for some reason).
I think the horse has been beat enough about the brilliant Churchill being depressed, but it’s still inspirational.  Also, that brilliant people sometimes have awful children. Certainly the Churchills did – except Mary.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lovell tackled a giant subject here - but she did it once before (quite successfully) in The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, and she mostly succeeds here too.  She's drew from the extensive Churchill-Spencerian aquifer, effervescent with Marlboroughs and Vanderbilts and Mitfords and Guests and so on, a huge cast.  She drew deeply, and by the end, there wasn't much water left.  Interestingly, the most vivid parts of the book are during the late Victorian-Edwardian time period.  You would think the Churchill heyday would be World War II, but the whole family was in the ascendant during the 1870s-1910s, certainly socially, but also economically and politically too.  Lovell's genius here is dropping bits of information here and there into the book that.  Like a great painter, she uses color and light to make characters stand out - Clementine's love of tennis, or where the boorish Randolph lost his virginity, or Consuelo's Palm Beach French house - which she has to do in this huge cast of cads, heroes, villains, and cavaliers.




Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd ; read by Nadia May (1987, 1994, 2012).

The subtitle of Sarum is "the novel of England" but perhaps it should be the "attempted rapes, pedophilia, various murders, robberies, adulterous relationships, and one case of witchcraft among many other crimes of England."  All kidding aside, the book was spell binding almost to the very end.  I want Nadia May inside my head narrating every book I read from here on out; she's a marvel of a reader-aloud.  Towards the end, I did get a bit bored - to be perfectly honest, witchcraft and Cavaliers and even cathedral building are more interesting than changing farm practices.

Each chapter covered an era or time period, and often they were told in different ways.  It was almost like each chapter was a loosely connected set of novellas.  Although the narrative perspective remained constant (it never switched to first person, for example), the way in which Rutherfurd told each story did change.  For example, the chapter about the building of Salisbury Cathedral was a conceit based on the seven deadly sins (a big deal in the middle ages) and the master mason's experience with each.

Michener-esque for sure.  I've lamented elsewhere in this blog about the lack of Michener in the world of writing now; the big sweeping historical epics are sort of gone with the wind.

Sarum: The Novel of EnglandSarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of this very long book, and was (mostly) spellbound.  Nadia May is a marvelous reader-aloud; I'd like her tucked inside my head from here one out reading everything for me; I'm definitely finding out audio books narrated by her.  The subtitle is "the story of England;" perhaps another subtitle could be added:  "including murders, attempted rapes, pedophilia, adulterous affairs, theft, burning, hanging, and at least one case of witchcraft, with various other human depravity thrown in for good measure."  But admit it - it's those exact incidents that usually make a book delicious.

Towards the end, I did get a bit bored - to be perfectly honest, witchcraft and Cavaliers and even cathedral building are more interesting than changing farm practices. But Rutherfurd's writing style was quite interesting and kept me going anyway until the very end.  Every chapter is like a novella, loosely connected by place, history and genealogy; every chapter covers an era, and often those chapters use different narrative techniques. Although he never uses first person, he does often use different conceits; for example, the chapter on the medieval building of Salisbury Cathedral uses the seven deadly sins committed by the master mason of the cathedral (very important in the middle ages) as a mechanism to move the story along.

I lament the passing of the Michener-esque novel.  They are most definitely rara avis in these times.  Sarum is coming on 30 years old pretty soon, and big sweeping historical epics like it are gone with the wind.  Hopefully they will rise again!


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Friday, August 15, 2014

Great Tales from English History: A Treasury of True Stories - the Extraordinary People Who Made Britain Great by Robert Lacey (2003)

A solid read.  What was truly fun is that I'm listening to Edward Rutherfurd's Sarum: The Novel of England on audio, and Lacey's book is almost a color commentary of Sarum.  I kept wondering if Lacey read Rutherfurd's novel, and created these short nonfiction bits based on the best history found in Rutherfurd's tome.  I'm absolutely sure that's not true, but reading this and listening to has definitely been a double-whammy of English history.

Great Tales From English History OmnibusGreat Tales From English History Omnibus by Robert Lacey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very solid; short, entertaining bits about British history that pithily separates the wheat from the chaff; if the chaff is legend and the wheat is truth, Lacey lets you savor the sweet chaff a bit before discarding it, which is nice.  Great fun.


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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Expats by Chris Pavone (2012)

The ExpatsThe Expats by Chris Pavone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn't usually my kind of book - modern international thriller; not usually my cup of tea (historical whodunnits and cozies are more my style).  So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself eagerly wanting to return to this book.  I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat, but it is an engrossing mystery.   It's actually kind of hard to write this without giving too much away, and part of the fun of the book is the mystery and the build up to almost Poirot-esque reckoning at the end.  There is much housewifery angst and worry between the action, and that was annoying as hell.  Skim it until you get to the good parts.  The non-linear story line also drove me nuts.  Just keep telling yourself that all of this is worth it because at the end it's a damn good mystery.


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Monday, August 11, 2014

The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts (1980)

This girl.  Has silver eyes.  And looks totally 80s.
The Girl with the Silver Eyes was one of those books that hung around the periphery of my adolescence. I didn't own a copy, so it must have been in my junior high / high school library (they were one and the same).  It made an impact on me, enough to remember it as an adult.  I think that has to do with the subject matter, and the time period in which I was reading it.
Let's say I first read The Girl With Silver Eyes as a seventh or eighth grader.  I probably re-read it at least once as a high school student (I have never been discriminatory towards books based on age or reading level; as a teenager I continued to occasionally read the books of my childhood).  At that time, particularly in eighth grade, I would have slowly but surely been realizing I was different from the other boys.   I only wish I had telekinesis or could talk to cats like the girl with silver eyes.  But I was only - boringly comparatively speaking - gay. Being gay and being Katie with the silver eyes did have a lot in common, something that smacked me in the head reading this as a grownup.  

Katie was different from everyone else in a way that was noticeable. So was I.  Even if I didn't know I was gay, other people did.
Katie kept part of her life a secret.  So did I.
She found out there were others like her out there, and was desperate to meet them, so she could feel normal and be with her own kind.  I felt the same way.

I don't think I knew that the book resonated with me because of that back in 8th grade; but I can certainly conclude that now.


As books go, this is typical 80s fare.  There is more in this book about Katie's relationship to her mother and her mother's boyfriends than her special powers. It's sort of like if Judy Blume wrote Harry Potter.   I think if this book were written now, there'd be more attention paid to the powers, and there would definitely be a sequel.  We don't even know what happens to Katie and her kind - the book just ends!  Which didn't really bother me way back when, and certainly doesn't bother me now.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If Judy Blume (or maybe Cynthia Voigt) wrote Harry Potter, you might have ended up with something like The Girl With the Silver Eyes. There is much attention paid to Katie's relationship with her uncaring mother and her mother's gross boyfriend, and less detail paid to Katie's special powers (not magical, but seemingly so).  The girl on the cover of the edition I read as a kid, and re-read as an adult, looks straight out of 1979.  I think I went to elementary school with this girl, sans silver eyes.  I think kids today would probably still read this, but may be bored by the lack of action; I also think that they'd clamor for a sequel (or two, or more). That didn't particularly bother me when I read this as a young teenager; it certainly doesn't now. (I probably gave this three stars for nostalgia's sake).




Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Big Four by Agatha Christie (1927)

My worn paperback
When I was in seventh grade (or so), I not only started reading Agatha Christie, I started buying books by her too.  All throughout high school, I collected Agatha Chrisites, usually paperbacks.  I also joined a mystery book club, so had several hard cover editions as well.  Sometime between college and now, I dumped almost every single Agatha Christie I owned, based on some formula that today I don't remember.  I kick myself for this now (I kick myself for dumping my college textbooks too, which I desperately want now; I was so stupid).  I did save a few Christies though,  including The Big Four.  For some reason, I considered this one of her best, or the very least, one of my favorites.  I have no idea why I even thought this, because re-reading The Big Four  was not a pleasant experience.  It's bad.  It's not horridly horrible, but it's bad enough I didn't want to finish.  I did though, but I really didn't care about anything in the book.  It's not one of Christie's best.  It may be her worst (we will see about that).  I wonder what my 16 year old self found so enthralling about this book?  The thriller aspect was dull; there was little to no mystery, and most of that not very puzzling or difficult to figure out.  There were many outlandish happenings - including an electrified chess piece - that belong in James Bond rather than Agatha Christie.  A book like Murder on the Orient Express is really ingenious with its intricate plot, red herrings, great characters.  The Big Four has none of these.

One of my regrets - and something eventually plan on rectifying - is that I've never read a single Sherlock Holmes story. I've read some Sherlock Holmes written by modern authors - a Laurie King, some short stories.  But nothing in the original.  I've watched and adored the new Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch.  But I haven't yet tackled the original stories.  They are on my list, but haven't reached them yet.

So in stating that The Big Four is probably Christie's attempt to copy Sherlock Holmes and Watson, while probably a true statement, is based on conjecture on my part.  And based on loving the Cumberbatch.  But much of Poirot and Hasting's adventures reminded me of the (sometimes outrageously far fetched) adventures of Holmes and Watson, portrayed by Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  For some reason, an electrified chess piece in Holmes would be thrilling; with Poirot it felt stupid and heavy handed (very Charlie Chan).  Number Four was a very Moriarty-ish type of character (Moriarty as played by Andrew Scott); I had a hard time picturing Poirot up against Moriarty.When I was in seventh grade (or so), I not only started reading Agatha Christie, I started buying books by her too.  All throughout high school, I collected Agatha Chrisites, usually paperbacks.  I also joined a mystery book club, so had several hard cover editions as well.  Sometime between college and now, I dumped almost every single Agatha Christie I owned, based on some formula that today I don't remember.  I kick myself for this now (I kick myself for dumping my college textbooks too, which I desperately want now; I was so stupid).  I did save a few Christies though,  including The Big Four.  For some reason, I considered this one of her best, or the very least, one of my favorites.  I have no idea why I even thought this, because re-reading The Big Four  was not a pleasant experience.  It's bad.  It's not horridly horrible, but it's bad enough I didn't want to finish.  I did though, but I really didn't care about anything in the book.  It's not one of Christie's best.  It may be her worst (we will see about that).  I wonder what my 16 year old self found so enthralling about this book?  The thriller aspect was dull; there was little to no mystery, and most of that not very puzzling or difficult to figure out.  There were many outlandish happenings - including an electrified chess piece - that belong in James Bond rather than Agatha Christie.  A book like Murder on the Orient Express is really ingenious with its intricate plot, red herrings, great characters.  The Big Four has none of these.

One of my regrets - and something eventually plan on rectifying - is that I've never read a single Sherlock Holmes story. I've read some Sherlock Holmes written by modern authors - a Laurie King, some short stories.  But nothing in the original.  I've watched and adored the new Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch.  But I haven't yet tackled the original stories.  They are on my list, but haven't reached them yet.

So in stating that The Big Four is probably Christie's attempt to copy Sherlock Holmes and Watson, while probably a true statement, is based on conjecture on my part.  And based on loving the Cumberbatch.  But much of Poirot and Hasting's adventures reminded me of the (sometimes outrageously far fetched) adventures of Holmes and Watson, portrayed by Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  For some reason, an electrified chess piece in Holmes would be thrilling; with Poirot it felt stupid and heavy handed (very Charlie Chan).  Number Four was a very Moriarty-ish type of character (Moriarty as played by Andrew Scott); I had a hard time picturing Poirot up against Moriarty.  Although that would make an interesting mash up.  I think Martin Freeman is far sexier than Hastings too. 

One interesting side note about The Big Four - my previous Christies included some annotations of the meanings of certain words, phrases or 1020isms.  I didn't have anything in The Big Four that didn't make sense to me though.  Maybe that's why my 16 year old self liked it so much - it's really straightforward.  A sixteen year old could read it pretty well today and understand most if not all of what was going on.    Although that would make an interesting mash up.  I think Martin Freeman is far sexier than Hastings too. 

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Not the best Christie - this lacks the intricate plots, stock characters with a bit of extra oomph, and red herrings of later books like Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.  #4 - the Destroyer, reminded me of Moriarty from the Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes series;  this would have made a far better Sherlock Holmes and Watson (circa 2013) than it did a Poirot novel.  Give me the Poirot of Evil Under the Sun over this international man of mystery any time.


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