vanessa and her sisterLondon, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.

Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.

The landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else.

Vanessa and Her Sister exquisitely captures the champagne-heady days of prewar London and the extraordinary lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. (description from publisher)

Headed to London for the Olympics? First of all : jealous! Second : I hope you have tickets/hotel/transportation already arranged – the grand old city is bound to be bursting at the seams. Still looking for some tips on how to occupy your time between watching the handball semi-finals and the whitewater rafting qualifying? Here are some books that will give you lots of ideas, whether you’re in town for the Games or just dreaming of visiting someday.

DK Eyewitness Travel London – Offers maps, history, and general features, detailed guides through the various areas of the city. and suggestions for specific walks. Also provides a street finder and hints on shops and markets, entertainment, children’s interests, transportation. Colorful photographs adorn every page.

Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places by Christopher Somerville – Storm-battered headlands, hidden waterfalls, tumbledown cottages, the ruins of haunted chapels deep in forgotten woods, medieval Green Men, old mines and quarries being recaptured by nature, rusting sea-forts tottering on sandbanks. Britain and Ireland are full of wild places, some remote, many often astonishingly close to civilization.

Berlitz Handbook of Great Britain – What sets this guide apart is the illuminating Unique Experiences section which are packed full of practical advice on how to make the most of all the opportunities unique to Britain – from visiting royal residences to watching a soccer match, or exploring Brontë country in Yorkshire.

Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in London– Features walking tours of London including the Royal Parks, Jack the Ripper’s trail in the East End, a walk along the Thames, literary themed walks that feature the inspirational settings ranging from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

The titular beauty of Beguiling the Beauty is Venetia Easterbrook, a young widow widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in London society, who vows revenge against the Duke of Lexington when he slanders her good name. Since he knows her by her famously stunning face, she wears a veil to seduce the Duke, London’s most eligible bachelor, while crossing the Atlantic on a luxurious steamer, planning to ditch him at the end of the journey and teach him a lesson about love gone wrong. Little does she know that their shared love of fossil-hunting and study of dinosaurs will cement their intellectual compatibility even as their physical chemistry sizzles.

Sherry Thomas’ newest novel, first in a planned trilogy, is a delight: it’s absurd, it’s sensual, and it’s great fun! In what other novel is the gift of exquisitely preserved tetrapodichnites (fossilized dinosaur tracks) fraught with emotional significance?! Where else in literature does a veil that blocks the wearer from seeing, eating, and kissing seem like a glamorous accessory with only the addition of a few paillettes? Nowhere!

With the exception of the denouement (which is silly) and the groundwork laid for the two planned sequels (which is distracting), this romance is a pure, unadulterated delight. The historical setting feels genuine rather than slapdash, and Thomas’s writing is smart and snappy. A flat-out perfect beach read for any romance reader, though it doesn’t stand up to vigorous literary scrutiny: after all, the Beauty is the one doing all the Beguiling here, and if even the title doesn’t take this book too seriously, how can readers? Despite that, the conceit of the masked seductress combined with the interest in paleontology makes this romance uniquely entrancing – or even beguiling.

 

Little Bee offers a lot to talk about, but without a lot of substance. It exhibits a weird tension between visceral and twee, with its pretty cover, gimmicky blurb, Dickensian coincidences, and gritty portrayal of humanitarian crises in western Africa. It’s a book that doesn’t make you decide between ‘drama of unimaginable cruelty and violence’ and ‘saga of suburban ennui and infidelity’ – it just has both, and by virtue of that uniqueness, it’s already worthy of discussion. Additionally, the sadness of the subject matter and its real-life inspiration make this a heart wrenching book that will absolutely give book clubs fodder for great discussion.

There’s a lot of good in Little Bee; it’s snappy and readable, even beautiful in its language at times. Its setting contrasts the familiarity of London with the unknown of its asylum-seekers and Nigeria’s oil conflict in a surprisingly effective way. But there are lots of negatives too: the plot has turns so contrived you’ll wince, and Little Bee herself is so perfectly perfect that her nobility can be tiresome. Few of the characters are memorable and even fewer are sympathetic.

It also suffers from the plight of Changed Title Syndrome, wherein the publishers change the original title in an attempt to appeal to American audiences (this also famously happened with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – because presumably, American kids would never stoop to read something with a word as dull as ‘philosopher’ in the title). In this case, the wonderfully apt and evocative title “The Other Hand” was rewritten to the rather plain and accessible “Little Bee.” Rather than calling attention to the central metaphor and most vivid scene of the book, the new title simply names the main character, and it’s rather banal by comparison.

“Little Bee” is an unusual, readable book that, while imperfect, would make a great choice for book clubs (provided all members are comfortable with some gritty, violent scenes).

 

 True Love (And Other Lies) by Whitney Gaskell has an interesting premise and a promising heroine.Things I like – Clare is funny and snarkily irreverent about her job as a travel writer for the magazine, Sassy Seniors!

Based in New York, she must evaluate destinations with an eye for early-bird specials and frugal accommodations. Usually, when she gets to travel, she’s sent to budget hotels in American cities.When she finally  gets an opportunity to go to London, she feels the time spent paying her dues has paid off.

(Actually the reason I am reading the book is because I did a search for novels about travel or travel writers).

Stay tuned…

Sherlock Holmes comes to the 21st century in the new BBC series Sherlock. Consulted reluctantly by the police, Holmes is brilliant, sarcastic and socially awkward. Watson, a military doctor that has just returned from Afghanistan after being wounded, is not the bumbling fool so often portrayed in film but is an equal partner in the detective work and also serves as a moral compass for Holmes.

The familiar framework remains, just tweaked in places for the modern setting. Thus, the deerstalker becomes a scarf, Watson keeps a blog rather than a journal, London atmosphere comes from a skyline that includes the Millenium Wheel and the Gherkin building rather than foggy, cobblestone streets and Holmes finds his informants among the homeless rather than street children. What doesn’t change, however, is the brilliant Holmes – socially misfit, actively disliked by many, hyper intelligent.

As you would expect from the BBC, the production values are excellent. Filming on location in London lends authentic atmosphere; the writing is sharp and witty with many homages to the Arthur Conan Doyle originals; and the acting is outstanding. The only negative? There are only three episodes. However, the series proved to be so popular in England that they are currently filming three more episodes – watch for them on PBS in the fall.

Whether you’re new to Sherlock Holmes, or longtime fan you’re sure to enjoy this fun new series.

What happens when that gang of friends you’ve run around with since your college days – your drinking buddies, your partners-in-mischief, your closest confidants – begin to grow up, pair off, start families? And you suddenly realize that, while you’re godmother to several charming children that you love dearly, the prospect of having your own children still seems distant, maybe even unreachable? These are some of  the questions that Tessa King must wrestle with in The Godmother, a look at growing up that is by turns poignant, funny, dark and heartwarming.

Tessa seems to have it all – youth, beauty, fabulous friends. Everything except a family of her own. After a crisis at work she takes a closer look at her life choices and those of her friends and realizes that seemingly perfect arrangements are often cracking under stress, that the fairy tale doesn’t always come true and that hard choices have to be made. Tackling infertility, difficult teenage children, single-parenthood and infidelity,  The Godmother doesn’t sugarcoat modern life, but it also celebrates the joys – friendship, family, love.

Set in an urbane, modern London, this book brims with both sophistication and warmth; Tessa and her friends are funny and smart and sharply observant of the world around them. They also genuinely care for each other, just as you’ll soon care about each of them.

Beatles LondonIf you’re lucky enough to be going to London sometime and you’re a Beatles fan, be sure and pick up The Beatles’ London: A Guide to 467 Beatles Sites in and Around London. Here you’ll find a detailed and meticulous listing of every significant (and some not-so-significant) site associated with the Fab Four. Heavily illustrated and carefully mapped (including listing nearby Tube stations), you’ll soon be able to immerse yourself in Beatlemania. The book is divided geographically so that you can make the most of your time, and includes a special “Fast Fab Excursion”, an outlined walking tour that encompasses the most essential Beatle sites (allow about five hours), and a section on the filming of “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Help” and “Magical Mystery Tour”. While a lot has changed about London since the Beatles were in town, it won’t be hard to find yourself following in the footsteps of Paul, John, Ringo and George. And even if your travel plans don’t include London, any Beatles fan will be in trivia heaven with this book.

road-homeWidowed and jobless, Lev immigrates from Eastern Europe to London in hopes of finding work and a better future for his daughter in The Road Home by Rose Tremain. What he encounters there – friendship, cruelty, kindness, hardship and hope – becomes a snapshot of the world we live in today.

Arriving in London with just basic English language skills, minimum money and an EU passport, Lev finds a menial job washing dishes at a high-end restaurant where he discovers a passion and a talent for cooking. Lev makes some mistakes along the way – he doesn’t always do the right thing – but he is always sympathetic and likeable and you’ll find yourself pulling for him.

You’ll also meet some wonderful characters – Rudi, Lev’s colorful and outspoken but forever loyal friend from home, Christy, his down-on-his-luck Irish flatmate, Sophie, the English woman he has a passionate affair with, G.K., his gruff, rude yet ultimately life-saving boss, the people at the nursing home he visits and his fellow workers. From these wildly different parts he creates a family that sustain and guide him, yet there is always an undercurrent of sadness and longing for home. How Lev finds his way home again, both literally and figuratively, are the heart of the story. Although the ending is somewhat contrived, it is also exactly right.