Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Fancies

Over the past week or so, I've felt like I really hit the summer reading stride. I recently finished a couple of books that I really enjoyed and am currently in the middle of a couple more that are--so far--equally good. It's put me in an intense reading mood, and just in time, too, since I signed up for my library's adult summer reading program, which may or may not involve prizes for the people who read the most by the end of August.

Further proof that I have books on the brain: I had a dream one night this week that I was in a used bookstore and was pulling vintage orange Penguins off the shelves.

(image via here)

Here are a few literary-themed links from the past week:

While vicariously browsing on The Book Depository, I noticed that Virago has released some pretty editions of some of L.M. Montgomery's classics.

A forensic artist has reconstructed a model of Jane Austen, based on known portraits and written descriptions by those who knew her.

And as most of the internet has heard by known, J.K. Rowling has released a new story featuring a 30-something Harry Potter & Co. (Personally, I'm still more excited about reading The Silkworm.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

One Plus One

As promised, my second reading recommendation for the long holiday weekend is something a bit more beach-friendly-- One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. Though I've only read one other novel by Moyes (her breakout hit, Me Before You), it's clear that she's found a formula that works and is sticking to it. Both novels tell similar girl-meets-boy stories in which the girl and boy come from different economic classes, have a tenuous employer/ employee connection, and end up embarking on a life adventure together even while each is working through their own personal hardship. In some ways, the characters in One Plus One are indistinguishable from the characters in Me Before You, other than the fact that the former are not embroiled in such tragic circumstances. This is not necessarily a criticism, though. By cribbing some of the best elements from Me Before You but lightening up the mood a bit, Moyes may have actually created a novel that offers more in the way of straightforward reading enjoyment.

The main character of One Plus One is Jess Thomas, a young single mother who is struggling to make ends meet so that she can support her math whiz daughter, Tanzie, and her sullen teenage stepson, Nicky. She cleans houses for a living, including the seaside home where Ed Nicholls, a successful software entrepreneur, is laying low while he's under investigation for insider trading. The stress he's under causes Ed to act rudely when he meets Jess for the first time. To make up for it--decent guy that he actually is--he pulls over to offer his assistance when he sees Jess stopped on the side of the road one night, children, dog, and ancient car in tow. His attempt at being a good Samaritan ends up resulting in him offering to drive Jess and her family to a math competition in Scotland, which could be Tanzie's ticket to a fancy private school and an improved life. The road trip brings a series of mishaps, dramatic events, and emotionally charged reunions with people from both Jess and Ed's past. Though surprises pop up along the way, the overall plot trajectory is easy to predict and each passing occurrence bring Jess and Ed further from their initial antagonism and closer to each other. 

This is a novel that fans of Moyes will surely love, and that others will very likely enjoy as some comfortable summer reading.

Now that you've had two recommendations from me, do tell--what will you be reading this Fourth of July weekend?

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Levant Trilogy

I'm back with two summer reading suggestions in anticipation of the upcoming holiday weekend. The first is an epic novel by Olivia Manning--in my opinion, one of the most under read mid-century female writers. To quote from a blurb I saw that perfectly describes it:

“How many Americans who have read Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, or Iris Murdoch have ever heard of Olivia Manning? Yet she is one of the most gifted English writers of her generation.... Nobody has written better about World War II—the feel of fighting it and its dislocating effects on ordinary, undistinguished lives.” —Eve Auchincloss, The New York Times

Although she doesn't seem to have experienced the resurgence in popularity that some of her contemporaries have in recent years, her books have found a place among my favorites, as evidenced by my gushing over The Balkan Trilogy. Ever since reading that, I've been on the hunt for a copy of its hard-to-find follow-up, The Levant Trilogy. As thrilled as I was when I finally tracked down a copy at a used book sale, I was equally happy to see that it was re-released by NYRB earlier this month, making it easier to access this wonderful book.

As is probably obvious, The Levant Trilogy does indeed pick up where The Balkan Trilogy left off. After evacuating from the Balkan peninsula when it falls to German forces, Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Adjusting to a new climate and new customs, they find themselves facing an even greater sense of waiting. Guy throws himself into any work that he can find, or that he can create for himself. After a short period working for the American embassy in Cairo, Harriet struggles to find ways to occupy her time. New characters enter their orbit, new relationships form among characters who evacuated from the Balkans with them, and Manning once again paints a portrait of the Pringles marriage, this time almost exclusively from Harriet's point of view. For my money it's the more compelling one, and Harriet evolves as a character in a way that surpasses her portrayal in the first three installments of the saga.

That isn't the only way in which The Levant Trilogy surpasses The Balkan Trilogy. Manning seems more sure-footed in a number of respects: the plot lines surrounding her supporting characters are more interesting and tightly drawn; she strikes a more perfect juxtaposition between the action on the front lines and the stagnant atmosphere among the diplomats who are playing out their lives just behind them; and she seems to have perfected a technique of referring back to things from past volumes within the trilogy so that it feels less like summary and more like memory. All in all, I'd say that The Levant Trilogy stands perfectly fine on its own and can be read independently from The Balkan Trilogy. Of course, I'd highly recommend them both, but if you're feeling curious about Manning's work, this might be the more intriguing one to jump into.

Still not convinced? I'll be back later this week with a current book for anyone who's looking for lighter, more modern beach read.


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