"Blind Love" and "The Fairacre Festival"

Blind Love by Wilkie Collins and Sir Walter Besant

Wilkie Collins died during the writing of this novel but left instructions on how it was to be finished, the details of which Walter Besant was faithful to follow. The novel is set in the late 1880s and follows the story of Iris Henley, who is disinherited by her father when she marries bad boy Lord Harry Norland. I love the language of that age, but I'm finding many of the the stories I read quite similar in plot line. Unfortunately, I was reading Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady at the same time and I found myself getting the characters mixed up, what with both leading ladies marrying the wrong man and slowly coming to their senses later. It didn't help that one was Isabel and one was Iris but I probably shouldn't have been reading them at the same time anyway. I liked The Woman in White better than this one, but still, it wasn't bad.

The Fairacre Festival by Miss Read

This is the seventh in the Fairacre books, which I've been kind of hoarding so I won't get to the end of them. I think I'm done doing that. If I wait too long I end up forgetting the details of the previous book and I hate that.

In this book a dramatic wind storm hits Fairacre village and blows over the top of the church that has been standing there for hundreds of years and which has long been the center of village life. The estimate for repairs is well beyond what is available or can be raised by a thrift sale or concert, so plans are made to hold a week long festival in the summer. They plan entertainments and sales of all kinds and the entire village will take part, as long as the weather and other circumstances go their way.

I love everything about these books: the village, the people, the way they all annoy one another but have each other's backs when it counts. And it's in rural England - how can you not love that? This is comfort reading at it's very best.  

"O Pioneers!"

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

In this, as in several other Cather novels, the desolate mid-western prairie land is the main character. It's a character so formidable that it seems to have a will and power well beyond that of the men and women who try to subdue it. Only time and perseverance can tame it, and even then only the hardiest of pioneers will thrive.

The story is set in Nebraska in the late 1800s. Alexandra Bergson's father is dying and he tells her brothers Oscar and Lou that their sister will inherit the farm he's been establishing since his emigration from Sweden. He has good reason to leave it in her hands - she's smarter, wiser, braver and stronger than either of her brothers. When drought has most of her neighbours selling and moving on, she buys more land and experiments with new farming methods because she believes the land will eventually begin to give back.

The story skips ahead 16 or so years to a point where Oscar and Lou are both married and living on their own farms. The youngest brother, Emil, who was a very young child when the story began, is away attending college, the first of the family to ever have that privilege. When he comes home he falls in love with a married woman and decides to flee the temptation by going to Mexico. A neighbour, Carl, who was Alexandra's best friend, returns after a long absence to renew their relationship.

Lou and Oscar become concerned that Alexandra might marry Carl, thus putting their children's inheritance of her farm in question, so they drive him away. Emil returns from Mexico to find he's still in love with Maria. Her husband, Frank, finds them together in the orchard, shooting and killing them both. Frank is sentenced to 10 years in a penitentiary.

In Cather's series of prairie novels human relationships seldom prosper. Alexandra finds a sort of contentment but it's her relationship with the land that is primary. She is kind and not a hard person, but there's little emotion in her character. Even her best relationships are lived out with a sort of resignation that suggests she expects little if anything from human beings; she is more stirred by the land and what it can offer her.

Willa Cather draws you straight into the heart of the land and compels you to accept it as a living, breathing, entity. When you turn the last page, you feel as if you've been there and experienced all the beauty and desolation, all the joy and the sorrow the land confers upon its settlers. You've breathed it, smelled it, loved it and feared it. It's almost addictive. It certainly keeps me coming back, which I will do until I come to the end of her books.

"The Portrait of a Lady"

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This is only my third Henry James, the two previous ones being Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw. I enjoyed both of those novels but had seen a number of reviews saying this one was long and boring. Well, it is long, and at times it got boring, but I have to admit I loved it.

To begin with, it has a wonderful opening. I collect first lines - a hobby odd even to me - and this one is lovely: "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." It almost sounds like Jane Austen, but once you get a bit farther along it becomes painfully apparent that Mr. James is not a happily-ever-after kind of guy.

James does go on and on at times, but I like the language he goes on and on in, so I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience. I didn't get much invested in the characters until about half way through. At that point I began to care what happened to them and though I know it's at that point that many throw this book across the room, you couldn't have ripped it from my hands.

If you need action in a book, you'll have to look elsewhere. This is more of a psychological book, one where you spend a lot of time in people's heads. Once or twice I found myself thinking please, please get on with it, but only once or twice. Most of the time I liked knowing what the characters were thinking and following them through their decision-making processes.

The story, as most of you will already know, is about a young American woman called Isabel Archer. She is taken to England by her aunt where she meets a number of men who fall in love with her. One is her consumptive cousin, Ralph, who hides his feelings because he knows he is dying. Another is Lord Warburton, who is more or less perfect. Isabel is bored by perfection so she marries Gilbert Osmond instead, convinced he is brighter, nobler and more beautiful in every way than any man she has met before. We, of course, know she is badly mistaken but no amount of shouting "No, Isabel!" on the reader's part will make her change her mind. She marries him and the outcome is, inevitably, disastrous.

I knew something of this story before I read the book - I had deliberately avoided the movie till I could get the book read - but I didn't know how it ended. It was not happy and neither was I. I don't really need happy endings; I don't find them terribly realistic most of the time, but this was far worse than just un-happy. This one was so realistic it was horrifying. I realize more women than can be counted live like this, but still it chilled me to the bone. There was a choice to be made and it was made based on what were supposed to be Isabel's principles but I don't know if I'd call it a principled decision. I think it was a tragic mistake made on the appearance of principle but ignoring reality. And the most horrifying part is that I think Isabel made the decision fully aware of how awful it was, and would henceforth be. There's a morbid saying that goes "There are things worse than being dead, and one of them is living with the wish that you were." This is the first time the ending of a book has ever left me wondering if that might, in fact, be true.

"The Skin Map" "A Doll's House" "The Path of Celtic Prayer"

 The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead

This book is the first of a series, a fact I didn't discover till after I'd started reading. I don't really like series as a rule and I usually check but I was so interested in the plot line that I missed it.

It started off great, with interesting characters and a compelling story, but as I got farther into it I came across weak spots in both the story and the writing. Some coincidences were a bit too much to swallow and there is one character who adapted to extreme circumstances far more easily than would seem realistic. The review I read that caught my attention said it was a science fiction story for those who like a little more science in their fiction. I looked forward to the science and was actually disappointed that there wasn't more of it.

Having said that, it is a decent story, but I don't think I'll read the rest of the series.

A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen

This is the first time I've ever listened to an audio book. I couldn't quite imagine it but I have to say it was very enjoyable. I found it a good deal faster than reading, and quite mesmerizing; I couldn't stop listening even when I really should have.

The story centers around a woman who lives - what at first appears to be - a frivolous life with her husband and children. She seems fairly lightweight until we discover that she's been working behind the scenes to ensure her husband's success and their prosperity. He has no idea what she's been up to and he treats her like she's his personal toy, a doll, hence the title. As she prepares for a Christmas party, flirts with a family friend, and dodges a bill collector she begins to realize the futility of her life and is faced with making a life-changing decision.

I'm wondering if I found it so intriguing because it's a play. It was a recording of an actual performance, so each character was played by a different individual and had a different voice. If it was a novel read by one voice I don't know if I would have enjoyed it as much.

It's worth saying that though I listened to the entire play, I still don't feel as if I've read the book. I know the story and the characters, but I feel more as if I've watched a movie than read a book. When I do watch a movie, I don't let myself cross that title off my reading list, so should I with this? Maybe it's not the same because what I listened to was word for word what is in the book. I'm still not sure how I feel about "reading" this way but I will continue the adventure until I make up my mind.

The Path of Celtic Prayer by Calvin Miller

There's some interesting history in this book and I found several prayers I want to use in my devotions, but I didn't find it to be the inspiration I think it was meant to be. Miller's "The Singer Trilogy" made it onto my favourite books list but this one didn't come close to captivating me the way they did. He was an excellent writer though.