Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Crowded Marriage by Catherine Alliott

I'm really happy Sourcebooks is publishing British authors for the US.  I was in need of a book that would entertain and not be depressing, and I found it here.  Most people would think a novel that revolves around a woman who thinks her husband is cheating would be a bit depressing, but seriously--this was so full of funny scenes, self-deprecating humor, and that feeling that everything would be ok that it wasn't depressing at all.  It was a well-rounded chick-lit novel ( and I hate saying chick-lit, but there ya go).  

Imogene is married with a 9 year old son (Rufus), living in London with her husband and trying really hard to get back into her passion of painting.  Her next door neighbor Kate lives the good life--surgeon husband, loads of money, brilliant kids, and a full social calendar.  However, Imogene and Kate are good friends and enjoy sharing time together over a glass of wine, gossiping in the kitchen and having great discussions about everything under the sun.

But--Imogene's husband, Alex informs her that they just can't afford to live in London anymore, and they've been offered a small cottage rent free in the countryside.  Slight catch--this cottage is on the grounds of Eleanor's estate--and Eleanor is a gorgeous, rich woman that Alex has known since childhood, and had an affair with Alex while he was married to his first wife.  Uh oh.

Enter Imogene's anxiety, certainty Alex is cheating on her, and being thrown into the country and expected to help feed the chickens and cows that live near her cottage.  She's pretty much hopelessly lost and this provides a lot of funny moments as the townie meets the country.  

But--Imogene's painting takes on a new, fresh life, and she soon finds that living in the country isn't so bad.  If only she could trust Alex.

This is a big part of the novel, but there's so much going on that while it is important, it's kinda hard to dwell on it.  After all, Alex isn't a bad character--he's rather like-able and you can understand Imogene's struggle to trust or not to trust her husband.  Toss in misunderstandings, lack of confidence, and just not listening to people, and there's a comedy of errors all through this novel.  There's also an underlying lesson in this story:  listen to your inner voice; and don't ignore things just because they are unpleasant.  

I certainly liked this novel, and was pleased to discover I have another of her novels sitting on my bookshelf:   A Rural Affair.  You can bet I'll be tucking into that book soon.  

So:  cheating husband?  Maybe.  Frustrated housewife, thrust into the countryside, and afraid of cows?  Yep.  Lots of twists and turns in this novel, but all combine to make a fan out of me.  

Rating:  7/10; Just the kind of read I needed, entertaining characters with plenty of flaws, and lots of chickens.  And Rufus is just a darling little boy.

Available in paperback and as an e-book.

Monday, January 21, 2013

2013 Read Off The Shelves: How's It Going?

Well.  I am happy with my progress. 4 titles read off my first list of 25 titles.  I find the challenge occupying my brain more than I thought it would.  I itch to pick another book off my list and whittle that number down to zero.  

It will happen.  

I'm still having a hard time concentrating on any one book.  I guess this will improve over time, as my brain calms down and quite frankly, when I'm not so damn sad and my grief isn't so present every day.  Sitting on the couch and staring at nothing still has a strong appeal over my reading.  But, I'm getting better.  I promise.  Fun, funky, contemporary novels seem to be keeping my interest over anything historical.  And books about family sagas  and particularly sisters are just too painful for me to pick up.  I'll take this as an opportunity to delve into books I've dismissed before as "not my type".  Maybe they'll be my type for this period in my reading life.  I will have to make an exception to my historical novel ban for The House Girl by Tara Conklin.  The South is calling me...

So:  what's up next?  I've had to dig into my boxes in the basement to find a few titles that I packed away on a cleaning binge and promptly forgot I had them:  

ARC of this one--dual time storyline

Now out in paperback.  Pride & Prejudice + murder.  Plus I'm reading a mystery!!

ARC about chocolate, romance, and Paris

British comedy.  Right up my alley

Small town in Ireland.  Enough said.
So I've got a few up my sleeves.  Will I read them all, or take a huge diverting path into non-fiction?  Dunno.  Right now I'm consumed with which one to start first.  **Sigh**.  Life as a book lover can be so darn hard. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

City Girl, Country Vet by Cathy Woodman

Sometimes I just want to read something fun. Something so far away from my reality that I think, gee, it would be nice to be living in that novel.  Especially if it's British.

City Girl, Country Vet by Cathy Woodman is a delightful, entertaining read that will relax you and put a smile on your face.  It's full of puppies, cats, and the odd-ball small village British eccentrics that I love to read about.  There's also a romance, but not a heavy petting, lots-of-sex kind of romance.  But the point is made, and it's refreshing.  Not all romances hit the ground running.  

Maz Harwood is leaving her London job as a vet after her boss/boyfriend decides to get back together with his ex-wife in Maz's bed.  Her friend Emma has started her own vet practice called The Otter House in her hometown of Talyton St. George.  It's your typical rural English village, and Emma is leaving her practice for a 6 month sabbatical around the world.  Maz has agreed to take over the practice for six months to give her friend a much needed break.  

Her beginning as the temporary vet is rocky.  There's the supremely nasty and crabby Dr. Fox-Gifford, who runs the other vet place in town--The Talyton Manor Vets.  He's so thoroughly mean that he will go to great lengths to put Emma out of business.  A total pain in the arse.

But he has a gorgeous son--another vet.  His name is Alex.  Their meeting is a bit stiff at first, but they soon feel a growing attraction that can't be denied--although there is certainly plenty in their way.  As Maz struggles to keep Emma's business open and running, she's learning to live in a small town, be accepted by the community, and seriously thinking she made a bad choice leaving London.  And she's still uncertain whether she can trust Alex.

I haven't read any books where the main female character is a vet, and this was a highlight of the novel.  The inner workings of a daily vet clinic, the skills needed to take care of so many small animals, and the struggle between the "old fashioned" mindset of animal care vs. the modern techniques were all an added bonus to the story.  I liked Maz, the cast of characters who surround her in the vet practice, and her struggle to find a comfortable place in a town that is testing her every day.  

I so enjoyed this novel!  And--it was on my 25 book list for the Read off the Bookshelves Challenge 2013!  I would recommend this novel to anyone who loves British chick-lit, a light read, and anyone who needs to brighten their week with a fun novel.  

Rating:  7/10.  Fun, quick read with endearing characters and an interesting look at a small town vet practice.  Add a dash of romance and puppies, and you've got a weekend read that will put a smile on your face.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini's first foray into the world of historical fiction picks a subject that many people many not be familiar with even if they are fans of President Lincoln and his life.  Mary Todd Lincoln employed Elizabeth Keckley as her dressmaker--the 1860's were still a time when every dress was measured, cut, and sewn by hand.  Elizabeth was incredibly gifted and well known in the Washington area for her talents.  Most importantly, Elizabeth was a former slave, who had worked hard to purchase not only her freedom, but the freedom of her son, George.  

The novel starts in late 1860, as Lincoln is running for President, and the election is drawing near.  Elizabeth lives in Washington City--early Washington, D.C.  She lives in a boarding house and has established a reputation around the upper classes in town as someone who makes beautiful dresses.  She makes a comfortable living, and her son George is attending college--a very big deal for a former slave.  Elizabeth's  clients include women from both sides of the conflict that is currently raging in Washington--Southerners who will not stay with the United States if Lincoln is elected, and Northerners who will fight to keep the United States together.  She's living in an incredible time, and is witness to many intimate moments between husbands and wives who are struggling to keep the United States from coming to war.  

Lincoln is elected--and the world is divided.  Elizabeth is soon requested at the White House, where Mary Lincoln has heard of her reputation as the best dressmaker in town, and requests Elizabeth make her gowns for important dinners and balls.  Their friendship soon becomes firm and very fond, and Elizabeth spends much of her time at the White House.   She is witness to private moments between Abe and Mary, and moments that will help define history.  She witnesses Abe Lincoln struggling through decisions that will shape our nation at a crucial time; she sees the sorrow of losing Willie, and the agonizing day to day effects of the war on a man who cares deeply for his nation and believes slavery is wrong.  

The novel moves through the years of the Lincoln Presidency and then into that awful period after Lincoln's assasination.  Here's where Mary, who is a fragile woman, finally lets her grief over losing her son, her husband, her home, and lack of money engulf her every moment.  Mary Lincoln's life after the White House is a sad, terrible story.  And Elizabeth was there to witness most of it.  Until she makes a horrible mistake that will cost her everything she holds dear.  Both women are taken advantage of by people who care for little but making money off other people's unfortunate circumstances.

This novel is a very well written look at two women who were brought together during an incredible time in our country; became dear friends, and struggled to maintain that friendship through scandal, gossip, and misunderstandings.  

I have read a few other books about Mary Lincoln and her relationship with Elizabeth Keckley, but this is the first novel I've read written from Elizabeth's view point.  I learned a lot about the political machinations during the Civil War, the struggle for so many who found themselves free after decades of slavery--and the economical strife this caused.  Elizabeth is a very compelling woman who takes you along on a journey that includes heartbreak and hope.  I'll leave it up to you what you may think of Mary Lincoln.  We will never know just what kind of woman she was--most of that has been written by people who did not care for her.  I think Ms. Chiaverini does an admirable job portraying Mary Lincoln as a very complex woman who made a lot of poor choices and was blinded by grief.  

I would recommend this novel to anyone who is riding the current wave of Lincoln Fever!  It is a well written historical novel with enough attention to the political details of the time that you understand the whole scope of the world Mary and Elizabeth live in, yet does not over do it and lose your attention.  Lots to discuss for a book club!

And finally:  Elizabeth Keckley's book is still in print, and is available in paperback:

Rating:  8/10 for excellent writing, making complex characters seem very real, and a fascinating look at two very different women and their relationship.

Here's an interview with Jennifer Chiaverini about Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker:

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker chronicles the friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave and earned her freedom through her skill with a needle. What brought this story to your attention, and how did it inspire your first stand-alone historical novel? 

More than a decade ago, I was researching antebellum and Civil War era quilts for my fourth novel when I discovered a photograph of an antique masterpiece. Arranged in the medallion style, with appliqu├ęd eagles, embroidered flowers, meticulously-pieced hexagons, and deep red fringe, the quilt was the work of a gifted needleworker, its striking beauty unmarred by the shattered silk and broken threads that gave evidence to its age. The caption noted that the quilt had been sewn from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns by her dressmaker and confidante, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. I marveled at the compelling story those brief lines suggested—a courageous woman’s rise from slavery to freedom, an improbable friendship that ignored the era’s sharp distinctions of class and race, the confidences shared between a loyal dressmaker and a controversial, divisive First Lady. What I would give, I thought, to have been present as Elizabeth Keckley measured Mary Lincoln for a new gown, to overhear their conversations on topics significant and ordinary, to observe the Lincoln White House from such an intimate perspective. From that moment, my interest in their remarkable friendship was captivated, and it never really waned.

Readers may be surprised to learn that Elizabeth Keckley was not only an accomplished modiste and businesswoman, but also a published author. Was meeting a historical figure through her own words different than encountering her via more distant historical sources? 

A few years after I learned about the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt, I was researching a Civil War novel set on the Pennsylvania home front when I realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work—Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, a memoir published in 1868 by Elizabeth Keckley. Struck by the familiar name, I immediately found a reprint and plunged into her story, which told of her harrowing years as a slave, her difficult struggle for freedom, and her ascendance as the most popular dressmaker of Washington’s social elite, including the new president’s wife. Sewing in the Lincoln family’s chambers within the White House, dressing Mrs. Lincoln for balls and receptions, Keckley observed Abraham and Mary Lincoln in their most private, unguarded moments, and with them she witnessed some of the most glorious and most tragic events in the nation’s history. Reading the story of her life in her own words made her experiences more immediate and more compelling, and for a long time afterward, I longed to delve more deeply into Elizabeth Keckley’s history, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln, to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir, and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington she had omitted.

President Lincoln is often characterized by his calm, thoughtful, and wise demeanor. The same, however, can’t be said for Mrs. Lincoln. In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, you paint a picture of a complex, yet fascinating woman with mood swings and emotional outbursts but who also possesses a strong and confident presence.  Can you describe your insights on her character? Why is she such an intriguing person, not just in your book but also in history?

Despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to Mary Lincoln, she remains an enigma. She was the first wife of a US president to be called First Lady, and she was then and remains to this day one of the most controversial. Regrettably, descriptions of her tend to fall into the extremes of caricature: She is either portrayed as an unstable, shrill, vicious, corrupt shrew who made President Lincoln utterly miserable, or as a devoted wife and mother and a brilliant, shrewd, political helpmeet whose reputation was savaged by biased male historians. As a friend and confidante who observed Mary Lincoln closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, Elizabeth Keckley knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other. It was this far more nuanced woman that Elizabeth Keckley depicted in the pages of her memoir, and since Elizabeth Keckley is my narrator, I shaped the character of Mary Lincoln according to her perceptions.

Mrs. Lincoln chose Elizabeth Keckley first for her superior dressmaking skills; later for her confidence and friendship. Despite differences in temperament, status, and race, each woman made profound sacrifices for her country. Was it shared experience that cemented their bond?

Shared experiences certainly strengthened their bond, and for as long as their relationship endured, it was, for the most part, mutually beneficial. Mary Lincoln provided Elizabeth Keckley with opportunities for social and economic advancement she probably could not have even imagined during her years as a slave, while Elizabeth offered Mary the loyal, steadfast friendship she craved but had always found so elusive. But Mary assumed that the faithful Elizabeth would keep their shared experiences confidential. Loyalty meant everything to Mary, which is why their friendship could not survive the publication of Elizabeth’s memoir. Elizabeth claimed to have written her memoir in part to place Mary “in a better light before the world,” but since she was determined to write the truth, her portrayal was often unflattering. As publication day approached, Elizabeth worried that she might be criticized for revealing too much about the private lives of President Lincoln and the First Lady. “I have been prompted by the purest motive,” she defended herself in the book’s preface. “A breach of trust—if breach it can be called—of this kind is always excusable.” Understandably, Mary did not agree, and her sense of betrayal was so profound that she abruptly severed ties with the woman she had once considered her “best and kindest friend.” For the rest of her life, she rebuffed Elizabeth’s attempts to reconcile.