"The Bookman's Tale"

The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett

Here is a tale for booklovers - not just avid readers, but lovers of the actual physical books, the pages. the ink, the covers, and the bindings. It was a delicious read. I loved it.

The story alternates between three time periods: the 1800s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. In 1983 Peter Byerly is a college student and an intern in the university library's Special Collections department where he is learning to catalogue and restore rare books, and where there is a girl he would love to approach if only he had the nerve.

The 1990s timeline is the current one, in which Peter is coping with the death of his beloved wife and in which documents are uncovered that could provide proof of Shakspeare of Stratford being indeed the true author of the plays bearing the name of William Shakespeare. They are documents revealing long held secrets and truths that some people will not want published. To what lengths might they go to prevent them from becoming known?

The 1800s timeline gives the background to the current story. As Peter tries to unravel the mysteries of the documents he's found, this timeline tells us what actually happened between the now long-dead writers and book sellers and, what they did with the manuscripts.

Besides offering an interesting story this book shows the reader something of the often clandestine and occasionally dangerous rare book business. Rumours and secrets are everywhere but when someone has the documents to prove or disprove those rumours, then things get interesting. The book also offers well written characters, believable and likable with their honest mix of flaws and virtues. In fact, the entire book is well written. It's wonderful when a story is so well told that you actually forget you're reading and instead feel like you're living the adventure. I'm sure book lovers everywhere would love this one.                                                                                            

"The List of My Desires"

The List of My Desires by Gregoire Delacourt

Jocelyne is a middle aged woman operating a dressmaker's shop in a small town in France. She is married, has 2 grown children, writes a blog about knitting and is, in her own opinion, ordinary. An ordinary woman living an ordinary life - until something extraordinary happens: she wins the lottery. Realizing that eighteen million euros will surely change everything about her life, she finds herself afraid to cash the cheque and instead folds it up and hides it in a shoe in her closet.

One day she looks for it and it's not there. Her husband is away on a business trip. He'd been extra attentive lately and she'd been enjoying their new closeness and thinking how life was good just as it was. They didn't need the money and all the changes it could bring. When she tries to contact him at his hotel, they have no record of him being there. Without being told, she knows exactly what has happened.

I loved almost everything about this book, especially the fact that so much of it happens in Jocelyne's head. It's not a mystery or a thriller and there's not a lot of action. It's a philosophical look at money and marriage and what happens when the two collide. The spare writing style, the restraint with which the characters are written, and the way the author makes the reader feel what Jocelyne feels all add up to an excellent story. If I had any complaint it would be that it's too short. It didn't take long to read and I wanted more. I wanted to know what happened later, after the last chapter, so for me, the ending was rather unsatisfactory. It wasn't a badly written ending, it just came too soon.

The beautiful writing has been compared to that of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and I did find the spare style similar, but "Hedgehog" is one of my all time favourite books and, although I liked this one a lot, I don't think it quite comes up to that standard.


Abdication by Juliet Nicolson

Abdication is one of those stories my mother might have called “a good yarn”. Set in the 1930s, it is about May Thomas and her brother Sam, who have just arrived in England after leaving their home in Barbados to make new lives for themselves. Sam joins the Navy while May is hired as driver for a wealthy politician. Staying at the politician’s home as a guest is Evangeline Nettlefold, who as it happens is an old school friend of Wallis Simpson. Evangeline and Wallis renew their friendship at a time when Wallis is becoming more and more deeply involved in a romantic relationship with the King of England. Another romance may be in the offing when May is introduced to Julien, a friend of the politician’s college-student son.

My favourite part of the novel was the 1930's setting. The years leading up to World War II are endlessly interesting to me. I enjoy reading about the political maneuvering and of course the scandal brewing in the British royal family adds to the intrigue. The author paints a vivid picture of life in pre-war England and it’s those details that bring the story to life.

Most of the characters in the novel are fictional but two of them are actual historical figures: King Edward and Wallis Simpson. I never know quite what to think about fictional stories involving real people. Words and actions are attributed to them that almost certainly never happened, at least not in the way the novel presents them. Those words and actions influence how I see those people, what I think of them, even though I know the story is made up. After a while it’s impossible to keep what you know about people from history separate from what you've read about them in a novel. I’m not sure I like that.  

The story was pretty good and the setting was wonderful, but I can’t say I enjoyed the characters a great deal. For me the best books are the ones where I find a character to care about, somebody to root for, but I didn't really find one in this book. In spite of that, I enjoyed it and do recommend it to anyone who enjoys the 1930s and British history.       

"Washington Square"

Washington Square by Henry James

The first thing I want to say about this book is how enjoyable it was to read. After everything I'd read about it's dullness and lack of plot, I wasn't expecting much. In spite of that I dove in because I'd like to become more familiar with Henry James' writing and anything set in this particular period in history is appealing to me.

The novel centers around Catherine Sloper and her life on Washington Square in New York City. She lives in comfort in a large home with her father and widowed aunt, her mother having died when she was an infant. Her father decided when she was young that she was a disappointment and nothing in the passing years altered that opinion. Her aunt Lavinia longs for romance and being unable to find it herself, she tries to force it upon her niece.

Enter Morris Townsend, a handsome young man who has wasted his own inheritance and is now in the market for a wealthy wife to make his future secure. Catherine, who has never been paid any attention by young men, is at first awkward, then hopeful, then completely taken in. Her father is not fooled at all and thus Catherine is torn between the two men who mean the most to her. Her father makes it clear he will not leave her a penny if she marries Morris.

Morris wants the money, Lavinia wants the drama and romance, Catherine wants Morris and Dr. Sloper wants Catherine to marry and make a family, but absolutely not with Morris Townsend. In the end this novel is a battle of wills. Who can hold out the longest against the others? I have a feeling that different readers would answer the question of who wins with different answers, depending on whether you'd like greed, revenge, peace or romance to hold sway. I don't think any of them gets what they want in the end, but there is some sense of justice amid the reality that no one ever truly gets to live "happily ever after". Unless you're in a Jane Austen novel, but that's a different review.

"A Man Called Ove"

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman

Ove is just about the grumpiest old man you would ever want to meet, the type of person who intimidates the heck out of me. I like to stay as far away as I can from all that bitterness. When I was about a quarter of the way into this book I began to think I wasn't going to like it; Ove didn't appear to have many redeeming qualities. I made myself stick with it, mostly because I wasn't keen on starting the new year by quitting the first book I picked up and I'm glad I did because in the end I like it.

I still think Ove is harder to get along with than he needs to be, though I realize some of his peevishness is meant to inject humour. He's been through a lot. His wife of many years, the only person who ever really understood him, has died of cancer after a series of other tragedies and he can't find a reason to get through the days now. It all seems pointless. Deciding he's had enough, he makes a plan to end his own life and join her. Using a variety of methods he tries, several times,  but each time something happens to distract him and direct his attention elsewhere. As these things happen he slowly begins to open up to other people and, in his own bah-humbug way, he begins to care about them and they about him.

By the time I reached the mid-point of the book I found myself enjoying it. The writing improved as the plot advanced, except for an excessive use of similes. I just went back to check and found the phrase "as if" used at least 12 times in a 4 page span. I don't know if it's a problem with the writing or the translation (from Swedish) but I found it irritating. Why doesn't editing do something about this kind of thing? Other than that, I enjoyed the writing, especially toward the end as it seemed to tighten up a bit.

In the end I liked it, somewhat for the characters but mainly for the overall philosophy. There's something inspirational about neighbours getting involved in each other's lives and learning to care for and help one another. And it was nice to read an "inspirational" story that didn't come with the usual amount of sap. I have a low sap tolerance.

It struck me that this book would make a good movie, maybe with with Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Ove. He's the perfect grump in the Men In Black movies because you can see there's a heart in there somewhere but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve. I wonder if the book will ever be popular enough for anyone to make a film. Whether it does or not, I think the story will stick with me for some time.

For those who care, I'll warn you that there is some cursing. It isn't excessive, but I think the book would have been just as effective without it. Ove certainly didn't have to swear to make it clear that he was angry almost all the time. Still, it was a good story.

"Playing Sarah Bernhardt" and "The House at Tyneford"

Playing Sarah Bernhardt by Joan Givner

Harriet is an aging actress who is famous for playing Sarah Bernhardt. Her career goes downhill fast when memory loss leaves her forgetting her lines. After losing that role, she accepts the role of Mazo de la Roche in a small town production and begins a new life in Saskatchewan. As she is drawn into the lives of the other cast and crew members it becomes clear to her that she was hired for this particular role for a reason. In her own past lies the key to a secret about Mazo's life.

While this will never be a favourite of mine, it was good. The writing is solid and the characters are believable. What I enjoyed most was the unusual plot line. It was different from the usual story line of boy meets girl, etc, etc. It was interesting to look at the ups and downs of an actress's life and the logistics of a theater production. It seems like every novel ends up being all about the romance, so I found this one refreshing.

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

This was one of those lovely serendipitous moments when I happen across just the right book for my reading mood. I wanted a novel to get lost in for awhile, something light but not fluffy, something I wouldn't have to think about very much but it had to have writing and characters that wouldn't have me rolling my eyes before the end of the first chapter. I'm finding it harder and harder to find books like that. There are lots of light reads out there but they're too light - cotton candy light, completely lacking substance. I'm utterly sick of those books but this one, ah this one was just about perfect. The characters were quite well-rounded, the story was interesting and the writing was good. Best of all for me was the setting of an old English manor house. I don't know what it is, but I adore books in which the house is almost the main character. There's something about the connection that people form with their homes that gets to me every time.

Elise is 19 years old and living in Vienna in 1939. When Austria becomes too dangerous for Jewish people she leaves her family and their upper class life to become a parlour maid in England. The family she works for has a son so you can guess where that's going, though it's best not to take too much for granted as this isn't just a romance. With Elise's parents still in danger in Vienna and England on the brink of war, life gets complicated for everyone involved and the plot doesn't always go in the direction you're expecting. That makes it worth reading.