Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check In

Hello Again!

How is your month of Edwardian reading going? Have you found something that has grabbed your interest? If you’re still looking, maybe a movie would be the ticket – there are some gorgeous films set during this time period. Here are a few to consider:

A Room With a View – From the famous production team of Merchant and Ivory, this gorgeous film of love and romance stars Helen Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis and is set in the idyllic Italian countryside.

Howard’s End – Another beautiful Merchant and Ivory production, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, brings the rigid rules of Edwardian society into sharp focus.

Edwardian Farm – Find out how the other half lives when two archaeologists and a historian recreate farm life for a full year using practices from 1906 England. Fascinating!

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – So beautiful! Filmed on location in England and Scotland, this drama follows artist Edith Holden through the changing seasons.

Murdoch Mysteries – Follow Detective William Murdoch as he solves murder mysteries in Edwardian Toronto using the latest scientific methods.

Parade’s End – From the end of the Edwardian era through World War I, this epic story of romance and betrayal stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.

Mary Poppins – For something much lighter and happier, you can’t go wrong with Mary Poppins. It’s magical and fun and surprisingly thoughtful. Don’t miss it.

Miss Potter – The charming story of Beatrix Potter’s efforts to publish her first books and gain some measure of independence as a single woman in Edwardian England. Lovely and heartbreaking. Starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail   by Charlie Lovett is a book lover’s dream, a celebration of the preservation of knowledge, a reverence for the past, an appreciation of tradition and loyalty. It’s also a cracking good story!

Arthur Prescott is very content with his life, thank you very much. True, he’s not thrilled with his job at the boring, modern Barchester University, but working here means he has access to the library at the Barchester Cathedral. Here he can indulge in his greatest love, the search for the Holy Grail, comfortably surrounded by the modest collection of medieval manuscripts. Founded by St Ewolda in 560 A.D., Arthur is convinced that the key to finding the Grail is hidden somewhere in the cathedral.

Into this idyllic, tech-free world waltzes a young American, Bethany Davis, who has come to digitize the ancient books at Barchester Cathedral. Digitize! Arthur is properly scandalized and horrified and deeply concerned that Ms Davis will discover his secret passion for the Grail. When he learns that Bethany is also an avid fan of the Grail and the search for it, things begin to change and when the future of the Cathedral and its library are threatened, this odd couple team finds a way to work together. Arthur begins to appreciate some of the advantages of technology, learns how to email, opens himself to new adventures and makes many discoveries, some profound and some personal.

This would be a great choice for anyone who was a fan of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code but without the murderous psychopath chasing them. The beginning of each chapter has a brief flashback to what was happening to Barchester in the past, from it’s earliest years to the Reformation to World War II, then back to the present – the contrasts are intriguing and it’s fun to watch how the actions of the past are interpreted today. Arthur and Bethany and the supporting characters are thoughtful and interesting and there is quite a bit of (dry, British) humor. And the ending is incredibly satisfying. Highly recommended.

 

Darkest Hour on DVD

Darkest Hour follows Winston Churchill’s early days as England’s Prime Minister, as he battles doubts (his own, those of the politicians and even the King) and leads England into it’s great trial yet.

Europe has fallen to the Nazi invasion, nearly the entirety of the British Army is trapped at Dunkirk and America remains neutral. England stands alone. Should Churchill sue for peace and try to come to terms with Hitler, or fight what seems an impossible war? The politicians around him want to negotiate, feeling that they are in a better position now than if England falls. To fight German will come at great cost – is Churchill willing to shoulder that burden?

Gary Oldman, as Churchill, is masterful. He delivers some of Churchill’s best lines (“We will fight on the beaches. We will fight on the landing grounds….We shall never surrender.” and “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”) with assurance and drama that matches the serious situations. Physically, Oldman does not particularly look like Churchilll, but he captures his quirks, gestures, mannerisms and voice unerringly.

The film does take a few liberties, and fudges a couple of dates, but the overall atmosphere – of England united against a great evil – feels very real. A great choice for fans of World War II history.

2018 Online Reading Challenge – February Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did the month of February treat you reading-wise? Did you discover something great to read (or watch)? I had another good month, reading The Midwife by Jennifer Worth which I loved.

The Midwife is about young Jenny Worth’s experiences as a midwife in one of the poorest areas of London. The time is the early to mid 1950s and the setting is the East End of London, an area that is still feeling the effects of being heavily damaged in WWII.There is a lot of sadness and suffering in these stories, but there is also joy and laughter, community and life.

Jenny’s comfortable upbringing doesn’t prepare her for the hardships she encounters in the slums, but her compassion and understanding grows quickly. Some of the stories are very funny and some are heartbreaking. As you would expect from a book set in England, there are many eccentric characters and lots of “stiff-upper-lip”. I choose this book because it was about nursing and although I never entertained the idea of pursuing that career myself, my Mom was a nurse in the 1940s (she retired after serving in the US Army during World War II to become a farm wife and raise her family). Although The Midwife takes place 5-10 years after she practiced, I gained a lot of insight into medicine and health practices similar to what my Mom worked under and found it fascinating.

Now, some untangling of the title of this book. It was originally published with the title The Midwife: a Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times which is actually the first of three books (the other two are Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End). The BBC created what became a very popular tv series based on these books, using the title Call the Midwife and the books have been republished with the new name. The beloved series is running on PBS here in the United States with DVDs available of the earlier seasons.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read for this month of the Online Reading Challenge?

 

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware is quickly becoming one of my go-to, will-never-disappoint authors. I know I will enjoy whatever she writes because her books always pull me in and wrap me up in their suspenseful psychological messes. Bonus: the narrator for both of her books that I listened to was thoroughly engaging.

The Lying Game tells the twisted, complicated story of four young girls who met at Salten, a boarding school near the cliffs of the English Channel. Fatima, Thea, Isabel, and Kate helped each other navigate the murky waters of this boarding school during their teenage years. Their friendship was so strong that no matter what happened, they each knew that the other three girls would have their back. These girls became inseparable and solidified their reputations as untouchable and the ‘bad girls’ with the invention of the lying game. The lying game may have started out harmless, but quickly grew out of control as the girls’ abilities to keep their lies and truths straight deteriorated. The number one rule of the lying game: don’t lie to the other players. That rule became more and more difficult to follow the longer the game went on, something that had the possibility to destroy all of their lives.

After leaving abruptly in the middle of the school year, all four friends find themselves thrust back into the regular world without a clue what to do. Fatima, Thea, Kate, and Isabel have woven a complicated, messy relationship that none of them can escape.  Each will still drop whatever they are doing to come to the rescue of the other, even though many years have passed.

One morning in June, the four friends’ lives begin to unravel. Human remains are discovered near Salten by a woman walking her dog next to a tidal estuary. The discovery of the body shocks this peaceful town out of its idyllic reverie. Fatima, Thea, and Isabel soon find themselves thrust back into Salten life when they receive a distressing text from Kate saying that she needs them. Arriving back into town, the four’s shared past bursts to the surface and their realities come crashing down.  A shared secret has the ability to destroy their current lives as well as drastically change their pasts.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Victoria and Abdul on DVD

This is the Queen Victoria that most of us are probably familiar with – elderly, dour, overweight, always dressed in black. She is mostly a figurehead now with the ruling of the country handled by the Prime Minister and her councilors. She has outlived most of her contemporaries, despises her children (especially Edward, the heir apparent), is in poor health and has few interests. And then, into this dull and tedious existence steps an unexpected bright spot – Abdul.

Victoria and Abdul is the story of the unusual (but true) friendship between the Queen of the most powerful country in the world, and a commoner from India. Sent to England to present the Queen with a coin created in honor of her Golden Jubilee (he was chosen because he was tall), Abdul looks past the trappings of the Crown and sees the person. He is optimistic, cheerful and respectful and, when she asks questions about his country and his life, he answers her easily, weaving colorful, poetic pictures of a life very different from her own. Victoria emerges from her shell, delighting in new interests.

However, not everyone is happy about the friendship between Victoria and Abdul. There is a lot of racism against Indians in England (there is a great deal of unrest in colonial India resulting in several battles during this time; India did not become independent from England until 1947) and there is a concerted effort to remove Abdul from Victoria’s circle, testing the bonds of loyalty.

This is a lovely movie, beautifully acted by Judy Dench and Ali Fazal with gorgeous imagery and costumes. It is also somewhat melancholy; Victoria doesn’t have much to live for at this point in her life – she still misses Albert, who died nearly 40 years before, and everyone around her is basically waiting for her to die. That the one bright spot in her life, Abdul, is discouraged and kept away is very sad. If you’ve been watching Victoria on PBS (which is excellent), it’s also a bit of a shock, the contrast between the young, vibrant and very active young Victoria and the elderly woman she becomes.

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

guest post by Laura

Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series readers have patience. He released the Pillars of the Earth in 1989, World Without End in 2010, and A Column of Fire in 2017. They’re not sequels in the traditional manner. They take place in the same location hundreds of years apart and have some loosely, genealogically connected characters.

I was excited to see A Column of Fire came out in the fall of 2017. There’s quite a long waiting list to read it, so you may have time to catch up on the previous two if you’re a fan of historical fiction after you’ve gotten on the list. Just as in the previous two novels, this is a sweeping tale of romance with plenty of intrigue and this one even includes a few pirates. In contrast to the other books, A Column of Fire expands into international politics and crosses borders, reflecting the importance of interstate commerce and increased modes and routes of global travel.

It was fun to discover who the real historical figures and who the fictional characters were at the end, although one could guess. If you’re well-versed in European history during the 1500s, you will be spoiled. I had only a general knowledge so I was in suspense much of the time. Like his other novels, he includes the major historical occurrences of the time, focusing on the religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants.

I grew somewhat tired of the predictability of the fates of some of his fictional characters. There is definitely a pattern in his writing. Real life isn’t so just and predictable and I felt cheated that he thought I wouldn’t be satisfied with a divergence from his typical ending. I’m guessing most of his loyal fans may not agree with me on that, however. Overall, I enjoyed the book and am happy I was able to read all three over the span of a couple of decades.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Agatha Christie was my favorite mystery author growing up, thanks to my grandmother who consistently bought me her books and watched her ‘Marple’ and ‘Poirot’ series on television. The classic whodunit mystery holds a special place in my heart. As a result, I have turned into a picky mystery reader. A mystery novel has to grab my interest quickly, sustain it through the end, and be complex enough that I am unable to predict whodunit. Enter in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and I felt like I was back at my grandma’s watching Poirot solve a crime. This book felt like a delicious dive into my childhood.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book, a mystery within a mystery, a murder within a murder. Susan Ryeland is the editor of Alan Conway’s mystery series featuring detective Atticus Pund. This book opens with Ryeland receiving a copy of Conway’s latest book, Magpie Murders, and her decision to read it over the weekend. Such begins the first foray into the book within the book. Conway’s Magpie Murders is the classic whodunit that takes place in the English countryside in a small village in 1955 where a well-known woman has died. Atticus Pund, a German concentration camp survivor who has become famous for his sleuthing skills, decides to head to the small village of Saxby-on-Avon to try to solve this Agatha-Christie like puzzle. A housekeeper named Mary Blakiston fell down a flight of stairs at Pye Hall. Her death had been ruled accidental, but the fiancée of Mary’s estranged son seeks Pund and asks for his help. There are many questions that Pund must answer and after a second crime occurs, Pund decides to visit on his own accord and figure out what exactly is happening in Saxby-on-Avon.

Flash to the present when Susan Ryeland has reached the end of the Magpie Murders manuscript only to discover that the last chapter is missing. Confronting her boss, Charlie Clover, about the missing chapters, both Clover and Ryeland are surprised to learn that the author, Alan Conway, has committed suicide. Conway mailed a letter to Clover before his death explaining why he decided to commit suicide. After reading the letter, Susan decides to look for Conway’s last chapter and sets off interviewing his family and friends to find it and to learn more about Conway’s motives for killing himself. That last chapter will save Magpie Murders and hopefully Susan’s business as the death of Conway will certainly sink the company if that last chapter is never found. As she searches, Susan comes to believe that maybe Conway didn’t kill himself. She soon finds herself becoming sort of a detective as she tries to figure out what exactly happened to Alan Conway.

I really enjoyed this book. Atticus Pund’s story was entertaining enough, but the addition of Susan’s story adds a delightful twist to the whole book. I was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end in both stories. I also enjoyed how the stories intertwined together and how Susan was able to rely on the Magpie Murders manuscript to help her figure out what happened to Conway. There were so many tiny clues and revelations hidden in both Pund’s and Susan’s story that had me on the edge of the seat wondering whodunit.


This book is also available in the following formats:

This Beautiful Fantastic

A librarian with a garden – how could I possibly resist? And there’s no need to resist – This Beautiful Fantastic is a charming, modern fairy tale about friendship and trust and finding beauty in the ordinary.

Bella Brown is a shy, reclusive librarian (disappointingly, a bit of a stereotype, although Bella is young and does not wear her hair in a bun!) whose dream is to become a children’s book author. Lacking the confidence to show her work to anyone, let alone a publisher, she stays hidden in the shadows, avoiding her neighbors and other people, following a careful routine of work and home.

One day her landlord appears and tells her that she will be evicted in 30 days if she does not revive the badly neglected garden at her house (in British-speak, “garden” is what American’s would call a “yard” and in a city is usually quite small with lots of plants and a small grass lawn). Understandably, Bella is upset since she knows nothing about gardening and her first attempts are disastrous. Her grumpy neighbor watches in horror, makes unhelpful, scathing remarks and then, after Bella confronts him, agrees to help her (turns out he’s an expert horticulturist and had turned her in in the first place)

What follows is the blossoming of an epic friendship (yes! I went there! Bad pun!!), the meeting of two opposites that understand loneliness and isolation and tentatively learn to accept the other, blemishes and all and in the process, learn to let other people in as well.

This is a typical British comedy with eccentric characters, dry humor and quirky settings. The library that Bella works at is endlessly fascinating – and weird. I don’t know a lot about public libraries in England, but this library is obsessed with quiet (another stereotype!), is stocked only with very old books and has crazy hours. Also, Bella has apparently memorized the exact location of every single volume!

Bella is played by Jessica Brown Findlay who you might remember as Sybil in Downtown Abbey and the grumpy neighbor is expertly played by Tom Wilkinson; they are joined a cast of familiar British character actors. A delight for all.

 

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

I have been reading a lot of World War II fiction recently, purely by chance. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson fit so neatly into the timeline of a previous WWII book that I had read that I noticed myself mixing storylines. Once I realized, I paid more attention and started taking notes (Taking notes is more than okay to do! Even when you’re not in school.) This novel was enjoyable and I found myself connecting to most of the characters.

22 Britannia Road tells the story of a family’s rediscovery of each other after World War II. Silvana and Janusz were married right around the beginning of the war. Their marriage began sweet and full of promise with each other’s past left fully in the past. Silvana’s family was less than caring about her, while Janusz is very close to his. Silvana and Janusz settle in Warsaw where they work at keeping their marriage together. Janusz leaves Silvana and their young son to join the military. Years pass, both during the war and after the war, with Silvana and Janusz doing whatever they have to in order to survive.

Once reunited the family moves to England where they struggle to put the past behind them. Both Sylvana and Janusz have secrets though, plus the area where they are living brings its own issues to the surface. Janusz has very much adapted to the English way of life, while Sylvana and their son still mostly speak Polish and have troubles adapting to their new normal life. Settling into their new house, Sylvana and Janusz begin a tentative new life, rediscovering each other and their new home after the ravages of war. Each of them carry secrets that even before they are voiced begin to eat away at Silvana and Janusz inside. What did Janusz do those six years that he was gone? Where did Sylvana and their child end up? How did they survive?

This novel juxtaposes both the present day and the past to show what happened to Silvana, Janusz, and their son during the time when they all were separated from each other. I greatly enjoyed the flashbacks because it helped me to justify and see some of the reasons that each family member behaves the way that they do. This psychological fiction really had me thinking about the secrets we keep from the people we love and the secrets that we’ve become so accustomed to that they eventually feel like our normal life.


This book is also available in the following formats: