Book Review ~ Vintage Girl by Hester Browne

Making the recent decision to review every book (or as near as) that I read means that I have to review the ones that might not seem as trendy or intelligent as others. I have a real problem with people who try to make others feel bad for what they are reading, because they think the books they read are somehow more worthy than others. There has been a lot of it on Twitter recently, and there’s a blog post brewing, but for now I will just keep on reading what I want, and reviewing as much as I can!

Vintage Girl is not a literary book. It’s not a trendy book, and it’s not going to be winning any awards. But it’s fun, and it’s sweet, and it’s a really easy read. Sometimes I go through those stages where I’m not really reading as much as I feel I should be, and I’m struggling to really get my teeth into anything. When times like that come along, I reach for a book like Vintage Girl, and I finish it in a day, and I feel I’m back on the horse.

Evie is a young woman with a passion for antiques, and working for a dealer means that she gets to indulge in her obsession on a daily basis. When she is tasked with going to a Scottish castle to help a family determine if they are sitting on a gold mine of antiques, she jumps at the chance, revelling in the romantic visions she has of dressing for dinner and falling in love with a Scottish laird.

There are no real surprises in the story here; whilst there Evie meets Robert, the heir to the castle, and is immediately thrown into his arms, literally. Hester Browne tries to inject some tension by way of Hamish, Evie’s sister’s boyfriend, on whom Evie has a crush, and a romantic interest for Robert who is obviously all wrong for him. A book like Vintage Girl never really tries to be anything different to every other book that has been written in this style before, but the fun has to come from all of the incidental details; the quirks of the characters, the location and the situations in which the characters find themselves. Luckily, Vintage Girl just about delivers on this level. The setting is a beautiful Scottish castle, the likes of which I would love to visit, and Evie was likable enough to spend the length of the novel with. The romance seemed to be tied up rather neatly and abruptly at the end, but as I said, that’s the nature of these novels, and I don’t believe anyone goes into a book like this expecting anything different.

 

Vintage Girl by Hester Browne
First published: February 2014
ISBN: 9781782065654
Quercus
Library book

Book Review ~ The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings caught my attention a while back; I added it to my Goodreads ‘To Read’ list in December of last year. It was one of those book club books that everyone was talking about for a while, but I didn’t actually do anything about reading it. Then, as luck would have it, Waterstones got in contact with me to see if I was interested in being a part of a Waterstones Blogger Book Club Tour, with this as the book in question. Talking about books is one of my favourite things to do, so I was more than happy to join in!

The Interestings is about a group of friends who meet at a summer camp called Spirit in the Woods. The six friends are Jules, a girl who wants to be an actress, and when she realises that her new friends finds her funny, harbours dreams of being a comic performer in the style of Lucille Ball. Ash is Jules’ tentmate; a girl who seemingly leads a charmed life and also wants to act. Her brother, Goodman, is a wannabe architect but whose privileged life has made him lazy and complacent. From the beginning, Ethan is the one whose talent as a animator is apparent, and Jonah is a quiet, thoughtful young man whose mother found fame as a folk singer. Lastly, there’s Cathy, the ballet dancer whose full figure won’t allow her to achieve her dreams.

The book starts off at the camp, introducing the reader to this group of youngsters who all have ambitions to make something special of their lives, and decide at the beginning that if nothing else, they will always be interesting. The title of the book is, I think, actually a misnomer. The story doesn’t feel as though it’s about whether or not these people remain interesting. It’s much more about how these characters’ creativity and dreams as teenagers translated into their adult lives, and how much nostalgia can play a part in your adult life. Jules’ life is consumed and very nearly ruined by her nostalgia for a past life, and by a jealousy that she feels over the way her life has turned out in comparison to her friends’. Ash and Ethan lead a charmed life, and Jules struggles, financially and personally, and she lets her feelings of envy and jealousy of her friends consume her, almost making a conscious decision not to let it go. Her husband suffers from depression, and I sympathised with his situation completely, knowing that he could not change the way he felt. Yet Jules can change the way she feels, she can make a decision not to move on, and yet she doesn’t.

For this reason, I actually found it quite difficult to like Jules at times. I wanted to shake her and remind her what a good life she had, despite all the problems. The problem for me was that she had a great deal of self-awareness; she knew how her obsessions were affecting her life, and yet she couldn’t do anything about them. I much preferred Ethan; a boy who used his talents to help him get through his parents’ divorce, and is the only one of the characters whose childhood creative endeavours translated into a career. I was also fond of Jonah, and felt a little short changed that I didn’t get to know more about him, or spend more time with him. Looking back, however, it’s apparent that this is Jonah’s character; he doesn’t let his best friends get too close, so we as the reader can’t expect to.

I loved the structure of the book – we jump from the camp to the characters’ middle age and then back again to fill in the gaps. This happens at various points throughout the story; we might not get all of the information straightaway, but Wolitzer always goes back to fill in any gaps. The writing is wonderful too; when I finished the book I realised that there wasn’t much in the way of a plot – there are some major events that happen, but in the end it’s just a panoramic look at these characters’ lives over the course of forty years, and I really, really loved it.

As part of the Waterstones Blogger Book Club Tour, I took part in a Google Hangout with Dane from Social Bookshelves and Penny from Lillies and Love. We talked for over an hour about the book, and it was great fun! If you’d like to take a look at the video, and see what we thought of the The Interestings, you can find the video here.

 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
First published: April 2014
ISBN: 1594488398
Vintage
Copy provided free of charge by Waterstones

Book Review ~ Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

I’ve always loved modern historical fiction; the ability that some authors have to take real life people from the last 100 years and bring them to life just astounds me, and I have always found it a good way to spark my interest in a particular person or time period, leading me on to reading non-fiction on the subject.

That is exactly the case with Mrs. Hemingway. For all that I’m a former student of American Literature, I’ve read very little Hemingway. I studied The Sun Also Rises at university, and enjoyed it up to a point, but I haven’t ever really felt any overwhelming urge to read any more of his work. I’ve also never really read much about him as a man; I knew he had been married multiple times, and I knew the story of one of his wives losing a case full of his work, but other than that, I went into Mrs. Hemingway in the dark about this great novelist’s private life.

Naomi Wood dedicates a section to each of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives; starting with Hadley, onto Fife, Martha and Mary. It would have been easy to separate these four stories out, telling them from when they first met Hemingway through to the end of their marriage, but Wood resists this temptation. Instead, each section starts at the end of the marriage, and at various points flashes back to the first point of meeting. Hemingway’s marriages weren’t independent of each other; each relationship (aside from his first) began as an extra marital affair. There are no gaps between them; from the moment he starts a relationship with Hadley, until his death forty years later, he is never alone.

The women are written beautifully, Wood’s writing is just wonderful, and these four intelligent, creative and fantastic women come alive through her words. We see how they lose themselves to this man who treated them badly; the three latter women watch him treat the incumbent wife dreadfully, and yet still feel surprised and betrayed when they do the same to them.

Martha is their fifth guest at the table: invisible and mute, but loud as hell.

Each woman is distinctive, having her own voice, ambitions and character, and yet they all have the same flaw. They are all unable to resist the spell that Ernest Hemingway casts over them, and it’s fascinating to watch them fall in love, made to feel so special by this man, only to wonder where their dignity has gone as they battle to keep him.

I also very much enjoyed the cameos by the celebrities of the era; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sara and Murphy, Sylvia Beach, Pablo Picasso. It made me want to read much more about the ex-pat community in Paris in the 1920s, and I’ve already added a number of books to my list!

Mrs. Hemingway is a work of fiction, with Naomi Wood making sure that the reader knows that it was born out of her imagination. She has borrowed these women from literary history and brought them to life beautifully. This was a library book, but I can see myself purchasing it so I can read it again in the future.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
First published: February 2014
ISBN: 9781447226864
Picador
Library Book

Book Review ~ A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton

The idea behind setting myself a goal to read ten books from 1982 was to provide myself with some different types of books to read. When I set myself an A-Z challenge last year, I had to search really hard to find books for some of the letters, and it threw up some books I might never have considered, so I was hoping that this challenge would do the same.

I probably never would have picked up A is for Alibi had it not been published in 1982. I had heard of this series of books by Sue Grafton before, but it had never really taken my fancy. When I realised that it fit into this challenge, and it was the first book in the series, I thought maybe that I would enjoy it enough to continue with the rest of the books. I was wrong!

Grafton introduces her private detective protagonist, Kinsey Milhone, in A is for Alibi. She is hired by a Nikki, a woman fresh out of prison, accused and convicted of poisoning her husband, but always maintaining her innocence. Now she has been released on parole, she wants Kinsey to take a new look into the case, and prove that innocence.

Kinsey is a hard character to connect with. Maybe this is just because this is her first outing, and perhaps she becomes more fleshed out as the series goes on. But here she is presented as a strong, independent woman, but aside from a bit of fighting, we aren’t really given an opportunity to see that. She fails at any point to elicit any sympathy or empathy from me, because she doesn’t show any emotion for the vast majority of the book. Even when she is embarking on a relationship of sorts, we don’t really get to know how she feels about the man.

The writing wasn’t really to my taste, either. There was a ridiculous amount of description, but not in a way that made you marvel at Grafton’s ability with symbolism or metaphor. It was literally just describing what was happening. 

I pulled the coffeepot from the bottom of the file cabinet and filled it from the Sparkletts water bottle behind the door. I liked it that she didn’t protest the trouble I was going to. I put in a filter paper and ground coffee and plugged in the pot.

That’s just one example of a paragraph that tells me exactly what Kinsey is doing, and how she is doing it. As a reader, I just don’t need this level of detail, unless it’s vital to the plot that I know from where she took the coffeepot and the water bottle, and of course, it’s not.

The plot wasn’t very special either; I guessed the outcome very quickly, and while I was hoping that the clues that I picked up on were just red herrings, they weren’t, and the killer turned out to be exactly who I expected it to be. There can be a certain amount of satisfaction in guessing the twist before it comes, but only if you feel you have had to work for it, and here, I didn’t.

Needless to say, this book hasn’t sparked in me an interest to read the subsequent 22 books in the series (Grafton is up to W in the alphabet), but it’s crossed another book off from my 1982 challenge!

A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
First published: 1982
ISBN: 9780312938994
Pan
Library Book

Three down, seven to go on number one of 32 Before 32 – read ten books from 1982.