30 December 2010

On the Fifth Day of Christmas ...

Sorry gang, no golden rings - but instead an end of the year book report for 2010.  The last months of the year did not find me reading as much as I would have liked.  Mostly due to laziness, lack of inspiration, and a certain degree of depression that made me uninterested in just about everything.  Fortunately, I did enjoy the things I managed to actually get around to reading, and thought you might be interested to know what they were, and what I thought about them.

If not, you'll just have to wait for the next scintillating post.  It's up to you ...

Perfect, by Marne Davis Kellogg.  Another fun outing with Kick Keswick, former world-class jewelry burglar, trying her best to live a quiet life with her husband and dog in a small village in Provence. 

When Kick's husband, Thomas Curtis, retired from Scotland Yard, gets a call to temporarily return to work, Kick is annoyed. Well, at least until Thomas asks for her help, and she finds out that she will be trying to recover some of the most valuable jewels in the world, those belonging to Elizabeth II of England. It is strongly suspected that her personal valet has taken them, and disappeared under a new identity, in the extremely exclusive location of Mont Sant-Anges, in Switzerland - a location so exclusive that most of the world doesn't even know it exists, or how to get there. 

This was a good read, not just because I find Kick amusing and enterprising, but also because I liked reading about snowstorms and warm drinks at the end of this too-hot summer! It's also fun to hear her describe not just her actual skills for jewelry making and detecting, but go on shopping sprees with the character while she is buying clothes for her new identities, or food to prepare. 

(I do have to warn you though - she makes a devil's food cake in this book that made me almost willing to eat the pages, to see if by any chance they tasted like the cake!)

If you are fond of food, jewelry, interesting vacations, and some good storytelling that doesn't require your utmost concentration to keep up, I can guarantee you'll like this book.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.  I didn't actually read this one, but rather listened to the unabridged audiobook version. 

The primary narrator is Renee Michel, the concierge at a Paris apartment building. She is a widow, and has been there as concierge on her own since the death of her husband, Lucien, years before. Her observations are both intriguing and humorous, particularly since she is a self-described "autodidact," surrounded by people who have no idea that she knows literature, philosophy, film, etc. She has one close friend, Manuela, a Portuguese woman who is working as a maid for one of the families in the building. 

The second narrator is Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who lives in the building with her parents and her older sister, who is the bane of her existence. Paloma is a 12-year-old who is incredibly sophisticated for her age. She has decided at the outset of the book that she will commit suicide on her 13th birthday, since life seems pointless to her. She keeps a journal of her "Profound Thoughts" and other observations. Paloma is a perfect character with Renee. 

I loved this book. It kept me reading to find out what would become of everyone, or what wry or philosophical observations any of the characters would make. The characters were all well-drawn, even some of the ancillary ones. 

I don't want to give anything away, so I will not be saying more about the story. But I can tell you that the final part is full of amazing, beautiful language, and that it is incredibly sad. And worth every tear that I shed.

An Impartial Witness, by Charles Todd.  This book was quite enjoyable, and is the second in a series featuring Bess Crawford, a WWI nurse whose home is England. 

In this installment, Bess is accompanying a group of wounded soldiers home from France to England. One of the soldiers that she cares for, who is severely wounded, has a photo of his wife pinned to his garment. After taking the soldiers to the appropriate hospital, Bess is at a train station when she notices a tearful goodbye between a woman and a man who looks like an officer in one of the British regiments. After trying to remember why the woman looks familiar, she realizes that it is the wife of the soldier mentioned previously in the story! 

Once back in France, Bess sees a newspaper story with the drawing of the photograph, stating that the woman was murdered later the same day that Bess saw her at the train station. Scotland Yard is asking anyone with leads to contact them; Bess does, and from that point, becomes involved in the murder investigation. 

This was a good story, with evocative descriptions of time and place. I have not read a lot of books set during World War I, and I find it a fascinating time period. Modern life and modern warfare that were not as modern as they seemed to be. People were adjusting to new kinds of lifestyles, not necessarily tied to farming, but social roles (especially in England) were still very set into place. 

I think that anyone interested in the time period, and/or in the history of medicine and police work would like this book.

The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger.  I received an Advance Reader's Edition of this book, and thought it looked like it was worth trying. I'm glad I did, because it was a really good story, and provided an interesting glimpse into life in Egypt in the 1860s. 

The story is told from the standpoint of Sally, lady's maid to Lady Duff Gordon, a society woman in London, who is extremely well thought of in social circles there. Lady Gordon suffers from what we know to be tuberculosis, but what is not really understood at the time, and it is recommended that she leave England for Egypt, where the warmth and drier air will help her maintain a healthier life. Sally never thinks twice about accompanying Lady Gordon, so they set off for what will be a life-changing experience for everyone involved. 

Though they are curiosities in Egypt, both women learn to adapt to life there, and find it quite acceptable. Some of the class barriers between them break down, and Sally begins to feel that she is as much Lady Gordon's friend and companion as anything else. 

The book is divided into different sections, and though Sally is the narrator through all of them, she and the circumstances are quite changed throughout. I don't want to give away anything, but the end result is not something that Sally could have ever imagined for herself. 

Between the customs and social behaviors in each society during the time period, and the events that change each of the characters' lives, this story has a lot happening and gives you a lot of information. I found it to be nicely written, and not nearly as melodramatic as I was expecting after getting to a certain part in the plot.

This is based on a true story, which made it that much more fascinating to me.
An Irish Country Courtship, by Patrick Taylor.  Another peek into the lives of the citizens of Ballybucklebo, a village in Ulster, and once again I am not disappointed. This installment finds the Christmas holidays over, and life returning to normal again for Barry Laverty, Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, and their housekeeper, Kinky Kincaid. Barry is busy thinking ahead, planning to ask his girlfriend, Patricia Spence, to marry him, and hoping to be offered a partnership in the medical practice. O'Reilly has reconnected with Kitty O'Halloran, a nurse he dated years ago, before meeting and marrying his late wife.

Barry faces quite a few surprises, setbacks, and frustrations here. His girlfriend Patricia informs him of her plans, which do not include him. This sends him into the depths of despair, and he tries to use his work to help him get over her. But then he is frustrated by his work, as this is a time (early 1960s) when medicine is starting to advance in the large cities and hospitals, but is still a lot of guesswork in small towns and villages.

O'Reilly and Kitty, meanwhile, are rekindling their romance, while trying to make Mrs.[Kinky] Kincaid comfortable with Kitty's presence, assuring her that she will not be replaced. At the same time, everyone is trying to help one of the villagers prove that he and some of his friends are being cheated out of winnings from a horse they all bought together.

I enjoy these books so much, and am always sort of sad when I reach the end of one! I love reading about Ireland on the cusp of complete modernization, as well as medical practices that now seem dangerous and/or quaint, but were quite amazing for their time. I have yet to be sorry that I took some time to visit with the people in Ballybucklebo.

A Catered Thanksgiving, by Isis Crawford.  As anyone who knows me can tell you, I love to read books with holiday themes at the time of the respective holiday. So when I was at the library the week before Thanksgiving, and saw this book, I decided it was meant to be.

I had not read any of the previous books in this series, so this was my initial acquaintance with Libby and Bernie Simmons, sisters who own a catering business. As the book opens they are preparing to go to the Field Mansion to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for the Field family, a wealthy group who are blood relatives but otherwise have little affection for one another. The patriarch is getting up in years, and clearly people are trying to stay on his good side in order to be kept in his will. The family's fortune was made in the fireworks business, and though they have a ton of money, the non-public areas of the mansion are furnished with shabby,thrift-store items, since Montgomery Field (the aforementioned patriarch) is famously cheap.

In addition to all of this, there is a blizzard starting up on the afternoon the sisters head to the mansion to start their cooking for the Thanksgiving meal.

It is during this meal prep that Montgomery Field comes into the kitchen to check on the turkey, and it explodes, killing him! (I will admit this part made me laugh.) So Libby and Bernie are faced with a murder, a ruined meal, a group of unpleasant family members who are accusing them of murder, and weather that forces them to spend the night.

The sisters decide that since they have to be there anyway, they might as well try to figure out who is the actual killer. This is where the story develops, as we learn more about each family member and what motives they might have for wishing the patriarch dead.

I enjoyed this book and found Libby and Bernie to be fun characters. Not great literature, but a fun, quick read with writing that kept the story moving.

Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen.  I had an Advanced Reader copy of this book for months, but only read it during our trip to Mexico in November for my niece's wedding. I will warn you that this is a powerful, sad book that gives you a sense of foreboding from the first page. It is also well-written, and to me at least, believable. 

The story covers a year or so in the life of the Latham family, and is narrated by Mary Beth Latham, the mother. She is married, with three teenage children - a daughter and twin sons - and a Golden Retriever. Mary Beth's life revolves around her family, though she also works as a landscape gardener. At one point in the story, she realizes that Max, one of the twins, is suffering from depression. Her focus on helping him overcome this means that she is unaware of other things going on in the family around her. Finally, on New Year's Eve the title of the book becomes horribly true, and the rest of the story is Mary Beth's track back from violence, loss, and her raison d'etre. By the end of the book, I felt emotionally drained, but convinced that things would be as OK as they could be for her and her family.

I don't want to say much more, because I think this is a book worth reading. I had to put it down at one point (after the whole New Year's Eve thing), but I was definitely going to finish it! I gave it to one of my nieces to read on the plane trip home, and she (like me) was sucked in right from the start.

Anna Quindlen and I have a love-hate relationship. A lot of times I don't want to agree with her when I read an op-ed piece in the newspaper, though often it is so well-written I read it anyway. But I think she is one of the most convincing chroniclers of modern family life working today.

Though incredibly sad, and upsetting at points, well worth reading.

And that's it for 2010 books here at chez Ravell'd Sleave.


Tracy said...

Hi, Bridget! Many thanks for your birthday wishes at my place yesterday--so sweet to see you in the comments! Very much enjoyed this backward glance post and catching up with you here. My 2010 sadly didn't go quite to plan due to illness (family & myself) and much else, so knitting took a back burner... I hope to get the sticks going more in 2011! ;o) Wishing you & yours much PEACE, LOVE & JOY in the New Year! :o)

SissySees said...

Um... There's no way you can know I grew up in Keswick, so I'm off to see if Nook or Kindle will dump that one into a reading device, and AQ is an old favorite author I haven't read in a while. I think she might be just what the doctor ordered. I always enjoy your reviews!

May 2011 be a year of more highs than lows for you. I think too many of us had too many lows in '10.

Kim said...

Only you would think that that many books read is a "slow" period. ;P

I'm with you on Quindlen as a novelist. I saw this in one of my book club catalogs, and wondered about it.

And, can I just say, I adore the name "Kick" for a girl.

Happy 2011 reading.

Carrie#K said...

Echoing Kim on the "slow" month of reading! I think I've read two this month and that's only if I can manage to finish Wolf Hall today.

The Seafarer scarves took great! It is a perfect patter. I really like the #3's colorway, it knit up nicely.

Marie said...

Long time, no comment. I always enjoy your book reviews. I've read the first two of the Kick Keswick stories and have enjoyed them immensely. A couple of others in your current review have piqued my interest, so I think I'll add them to my reading list. Thanks!