Monday, August 9, 2010

Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

I had heard so much about this book before reading it. This is one of those classic texts that all bibliophiles seem to read and adore, so I was thoroughly looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I was not as smitten as most readers seem to be. This slim volume chronicles the correspondence between New Yorker Hanff and the staff of an antiquarian bookstore in London. The entirety of the text is letters, as Hanff cultivates a relationship with the shop's staff, a relationship built entirely on transatlantic correspondence. The second part of the book is comprised of Hanff's memoirs of the trip she was finally able to take to London, sadly after the bookstore, Marks and Co. had closed, and after her primary correspondent had died. Certainly the the letters between Hanff and her primary correspondent, Frank Doel, are touching. The two developed quite a friendship. In the privations of the post-war London of the late-1940s and early 1950s, Hanff sent repeated care packages to the bookstore's staff, providing things completely unavailable in the United Kingdom- basics like eggs (real and powdered), oranges, and women's stockings. It return, Doel and his store provided Hanff with quite a reading list- even the most ardent of bibliophiles will likely be wowed by the density and depth of Hanff's reading list. Those elements aside, I preferred Hanff's memoirs of her time in London to the letters. I drank up her descriptions of the places, though I found it difficult to get interested in the people. In sum, while I found this book charming, it was not the amazing experience I was expecting. Bibliophiles will surely want to read it, but I'm not sure a general audience would find it engaging. In writing this, I feel like a bad voracious reader. I've missed something that makes this book a tremendous experience of other book lovers.

Helene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road (Penguin, 1990, reprint) ISBN: 0140143505

Friday, August 6, 2010

Typically British Challenge: Wrap-Up

I have officially finished my Typically British Challenge. I figured I would have no problems finishing this one, and I was right. I went in at the highest level- 8 books, and have read those, and more, in just half the year. For this challenge I read:

The Other Mothers' Club by Samantha Baker
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonsen
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
A Desirable Residence by Madeleine Wickham
The Beth Book by Sara Grand
Born under a Million Shadows by Andrea Busfield
Another Life Altogether by Elaine Beale

That's not counting several other British books I have in my reviews queue. Overall, this was a very enjoyable challenge. The Long Song and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand were absolutely wonderful books- definitely the winners of this challenge.

Review: Loving and Giving

This book reminded me very much of another Virago book- Sara Grand's The Beth Book. Though published a century later, and set several decades later, there are decided similarities. Both center girls growing up in loveless households, both have lost parents, and both grow up to marry boorish and unfaithful men, their marriages making their lives miserable. But there are distinct differences too, and Keane's Nicandra is no mere copy of Beth Caldwell. Nicandra is neither bright nor feminist. She is a gentle soul, breakable, really. Nicandra's youth is so empty of affection that she fails to function as an adult. Named after her father's favorite horse, Nicandra commands even less attention than her equine namesake. She is a girl, and later a woman, with love to give and no one willing to receive it. Giving love becomes an obsession for Nicandra. It becomes her life's purpose. As Nicandra's marriage appears to be falling apart, so too is her father's home, literally. Her family becomes a living part of the downfall of the Irish gentry.

I was shocked to discover that this book had been written as late as 1988. In tone and language it reads as though it was written in the early-twentieth century, when it takes place. This is a tragic story. Nicandra, though almost monomaniacal in her loving and giving, she is still a complicated enough character to be more than just a type. After reading many books in which the ending disappoints, I am delighted to say that this one lived up to all my expectations. The ending is both suspenseful and unexpected.

Molly Keane, Loving and Giving (Virago, 2008) ISBN: 184408325X

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: The Other Mothers' Club

This chick lit novel focuses on young women navigating the rocky terrain of stepmotherhood. At the center is Eve, a magazine editor who has fallen in love with a widower. Her new boyfriend comes complete with three children and a family home replete with relics of the deceased and seemingly saintly first wife, Caroline. Through her best friend Eve discovers that plenty of other women share her situation, her fears, and her problems. Five of them form a support group, and the book chronicles their meetings and individual histories.

Generally, this is a well-written book, though the plot is quite predictable. It is unlikely that any reader will be surprised by the book's ending. I was quite sympathetic to Eve's plight, especially as I thought she was poorly treated, both by her best friend and her boyfriend, Ian. While Ian's devotion to his children is admirable, there is a crucial point in the story where his complete abrogation of responsibility to Eve was appalling. Likewise, Eve's best friend Clare is so bitter that she sometimes seems to be a caricature. Ultimately I'd classify this as summer beach reading. It's not deep, but it is well-written, and definitely one of the better books of its genre.

Samantha Baker, The Other Mothers' Club (Avon, 2010) ISBN: 0061840351

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: The Moving Finger

Poison pen letters spread throughout an English village, upsetting recipients, and leading to a suicide. The village is full of quirky characters, any one of whom might be responsible for the anonymous missives. Ultimately the mystery will be solved by one of the villagers' acquaintances, none other than Miss Jane Marple.

This was my first Miss Marple mystery, and I was surprised at how small a presence Miss Marple actually was in the story. She didn't appear until more than halfway through the book, and then remained in the background, sort of like the furniture. Yes, she does ultimately solve the mystery, but she's hardly a character of much consequence. It appears that The Moving Finger is one of the earlier Miss Marple mysteries, and perhaps the character was not yet well-developed. As this was my first Miss Marple I don't really have another novel for comparison.

The story is told by an injured pilot, who has moved to the countryside to recover. As he meets the various villagers, especially the women, there's an added element of romance, but as with all of Christie's work, the mystery remains the heart of the book. This is not one of Christie's more remarkable works, but it is certainly solid, and kept me riveted to the end.

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2007) ISBN: 1579126944