July Reading

It’s July, and that means Summer just began, right? I live in South Carolina and we only just hit consistent temperatures in the 90’s. We had an actual Spring, for a change, and it lasted forever. No wonder it’s a jolt to my system when I walk into Target and see huge displays of “back to school” supplies. Wait! I haven’t even scratched the surface of my summertime goals! I haven’t made homemade popsicles! I haven’t finished the kids’ summer listeners reading program at the library! I haven’t been to a baseball game! Or picked out a preschool curriculum for my four-year-old! Or made that inspiring vintage chore chart I saw on Pinterest. I haven’t organized every closet in the entire house!

What’s worse, I haven’t found that awesome Summer of 2013 book. Luckily, my children aren’t school age yet and the end of summer comes at the end of, well, Summer, and not in mid-August. So I have time (theoretically) to do all of the above and maybe find a good book this summer. It’s proving to be a difficult task so far (although my Jean Webster discovery was a great treat!). To make the “difficult” reference clearer, I have started reading and abandoned halfway through no less than four books in the last three weeks. That is just sad. But I happen to be a reader who won’t stick with a book if I’m hating it halfway through. I stuck with The Last Summer because I really wanted to review it, and to review a book, you kind of have to finish it.

Here are the books I began but couldn’t finish. Please don’t count these as official reviews since I only read half of the books. And please keep in mind that these books are not “terrible” and I am not looking to give a negative review. I think lots of readers would really enjoy these books. I’ll just tell you why I didn’t enjoy it and try not to give much of the plot of each book away.

Redfield Farm: A Novel of the Underground RailroadI was excited about reading Redfield Farm. It was number one on my Summer reading list and has great reviews on Goodreads. However, after a few chapters, I was pretty disappointed in the narrative style. It was a little flat. I didn’t get a good feel for the setting. And then the plot twists that occurred just seemed so utterly out of keeping with the characters, I couldn’t keep reading without thinking “ridiculous!” every few pages. It’s true that people do unexpected things and make mistakes in real life. Still, the Quakers were engaging in some pretty uncharacteristic activities in this book. If I had enjoyed the characters, I may have kept reading, but I didn’t. I wish I had, because the premise of the book with the Underground Railroad and the Quaker community working together sounded very intriguing. I think that if you enjoy books by Janet Oke or Beverly Lewis, you may like Redfield Farm. However, be forewarned: this isn’t a Christian book, so it’s not as clean as Oke or Lewis.

Home RepairI picked up Home Repair from the library shelf on a whim. I read the description and thought it sounded kind of like a quirky, memoir type novel that is both humorous and insightful. Here’s the description:

Eve’s beloved Ivan died thirteen years ago in an automobile accident. Her charming, boyish Chuck has taken a different exit out of her life: hopping into his car in the middle of a garage sale with no forewarning and departing their formerly happy upstate New York home for points unknown. Now Eve’s a boat adrift, subsisting on a heartbreak diet of rue, disappointment, and woe-left alone to care for Ivan’s brilliant teenaged son, Marcus, and Chuck’s precocious, pragmatic nine-year-old daughter, Noni, while contending with Charlotte, Eve’s acerbic mother, who’s come north to “help” but hinders instead.

But life ultimately must go on, with its highs and lows, its traumas and holidays, and well-meaning, if eccentric, friends. A house and a heart in disrepair are painful burdens for a passionate woman who’s still in her prime. And while learning to cope with the large and small tragedies that each passing day brings, Eve might end up discovering that she’s gained much more than she’s lost.

I was in the mood for a present day, this-is-real-life type book. However, I got through most of it and then just let it go. I was trying to be interested, but the non-plot wasn’t quite neatly packaged enough. Maybe the real life situation was too far removed from anything I’ve experienced for me to feel the book was relevant to life. I think this book is probably a really good book, just not my type of book. I’d say that if you liked The Friday Night Knitting Club by Karen Jacobs, you will probably like this book. Another book of this type that I did enjoy was The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel. The characters in this book were always interesting to me and I am closer to their stage of life (graduate school, young mom days) than I am to the life stages of the main characters in Home Repair or The Friday Night Knitting Club.

I saw The Perfume Collector advertised on Goodreads and borrowed the e-book from my library as soon as it was available. It was…well, rather sensual. I abandoned it pretty soon after starting it. Don’t read it if you dislike erotica.

The Dry Grass of AugustFinally, the last “meh” read I’ve had this month was The Dry Grass of August. I picked this book up after deciding not to read The Homecoming of Samuel Lake and it became a case of “out of the fire, into the frying pan.” The book’s plot follows 13-year-old Jubie and her trip with her mother and siblings to Florida in the 1950s. It was similar in some ways to To Kill A Mockingbird but the thing about books written around the African American plight in the 1950s is that they will never come close to being as ground breaking because they weren’t written in that time period (obviously).  I’d also compare this book to The Secret Life of Bees but without the rich scenery and spirituality. It was actually a pretty good book, with a few too many crude details for my taste (I’m a prude, I know, I know). I probably would have liked this book better about five years ago. This summer, I’m just not in the mood for Southern lit.

I just received Islanders by Helen Hull in the mail last week and I am itching to begin it. Also, I still plan to read The Princess and the Goblin before the Summer is over.

How’s your Summer reading going so far?

Downton Look-Alikes

I am both a critic and fan of the TV show Downton Abbey. I get a bit weary of the heightened drama by the end of each season, but I love the character development (especially of Lady Mary in Season 2), the compelling historical events, the beautiful setting, and the great acting. It’s the one TV show I watched last Fall. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who don’t watch it and go into a bookstore these days. DVDs of the show are on display, books about the “real” Downton Abbey are on the required reading table for high school students, and signs saying “If you like Downton Abbey” point to books with lavish settings and old stone mansions on their covers. I have to admit, I got drawn in by that last table. I wrote down two titles to check on at the library based on their “Downton-ish” appearance. Though neither came close to being as captivating as Downton Abbey, they did have the feel and the enthralling history of that time surrounding the first World War.

I’ll start with the one I didn’t actually enjoy. The Last Summer is set in Deyning Park, an English country estate. The title refers to the opening of the book, when the first World War has yet to begin and all the young people surrounding the main character, Clarissa, are frivolous and free. Clarissa is the youngest of the family of the Earl of Deyning. She is beautiful and thoughtful and a bit forward thinking. Yes, she will remind you strongly of Lady Sybil if you read the book. What’s more, she falls in love with the housekeeper’s son, whose name is…Tom. I can’t handle it. I feel like screaming “plagiarism!” Which may be unfair–for all I know, the author, Judith Kinghorn, may have started this book years before Downton Abbey aired. Maybe. After the first few chapters, the plot similarities stop, for the most part. The book continues as purely a love story. The Deyning family moves to London for the duration of the War, and the changes in the world after World War I affect them all. Tom and Clarissa’s love life is far from easy, so if you enjoy heart wearying love stories set in historical places, you will probably like this book. The similarities between Clarissa and Lady Sybil quickly disappear. I don’t think the book was all bad, but I had trouble finding any depth to the main love relationship beyond physical attraction. The lack of constancy in loving relationships throughout the book is also a negative to me. But the contrast of how the wealthy, “old money” families lived before the war and after the war was interesting. I’d give it 2.5 out of 5 stars, based more on the plot and characters than the actual writing.

The other book I read that tasted strongly of Downton is The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons. The novel’s setting begins in the Vienna of 1938. Elise Landau is the daughter of wealthy and artistic parents. Her mother, an opera singer and her father, a novelist, sense the changing political climate and send their young daughter to England, promising to follow soon. Elise is one of many wealthy Jewish immigrants who leave their native country and landscape of jewels and champagne for the English landscape of serving tea on the lawn between croquet games. Elise has a lot to learn, but the reader will find her likable in her determination to do what she has to without losing herself. If I had never watched Downton Abbey, I probably would have liked this book better. I couldn’t separate the Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey and the Butler in this story in my mind. They were one and the same to me. Otherwise, the characters were very different. The house was run in the same manner, the divisions between upstairs and downstairs were a big part of the plot, but the book is more comparable to Jane Eyre or Rebecca than to the show Downton Abbey. I liked this book for its setting and for the main character, Elise. It’s not a classic in the making, but it’s a good light read.

If you’re suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawals, these books could get you through until Season 4 begins. I think that going back to literature that was actually written in the early 1900s is an even better fix. Try Howard’s EndThe House of Mirth (not English but similar society drama), or Love in a Cold Climate.

     

If you haven’t read Rebecca by Daphne DuMurier, it is a classic that will never be outdated. It has influenced literature greatly and the style of books coming out now such as The House at Tyneford and The Violets of March are quite similar.

Happy English summer reading!

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