Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for April, 2012…
The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak – I enjoyed this tale of two strong women in Imperial Russia – one being Varvara Nikolaevna, a “Ward of the Court” and palace spy, and the other being the young woman to whom Varvara ties her fortunes, a young German princess named Sophie. Sophie comes to court to marry the future Tsar, but finds intrigues and enemies abound there. With Varvara by her side, though, Sophie has one true ally to help her on the way to becoming Catherine the Great. The Winter Palace wasn’t a perfect read, but it was enjoyable and fun.
Austenland, by Shannon Hale – This was a cute, fluffy read about a woman who lets her fantasies for Mr. Darcy get in the way of her real-life relationships. When Jane’s rich great-aunt dies and leaves her a three week vacation to an exclusive resort where wealthy women dress up as Regency ladies and pay to be romanced by actors playing gentlemen (and servants), Jane considers it the perfect opportunity to get some immersion therapy and then leave her fantasy behind once and for all. But she starts to have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality and as she flirts with guys at the resort, she wonders if any of these flirtations might actually be real. I liked this book – it was silly, but fun. One thing annoyed me – the rich great-aunt’s name kept changing (from Carolyn to Caroline and back again). It was a proofreading error that really bugged the heck out of me. Otherwise, I liked the book and it was a fast read.
Messenger of Truth, by Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs #4) – I continue to be completely enamored of Maisie and her friends. This wasn’t my favorite Maisie mystery, but it was a great read nonetheless. In Messenger of Truth, Maisie and Billy undertake an investigation into the death of an avant-garde artist. The police say it was an accident, but the victim’s sister – and Maisie – aren’t so sure. As with all Maisie books so far, the answers lie in the wounds that are still festering from the Great War. The worldwide Depression is underway, though, which introduces a new plot wrinkle as Maisie sorts out her own feelings about working for, and being one of, the “haves” while still relating more to the “have-nots” of the world.
Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James – Meh. I thought this was going to be really good. A murder mystery set at Pemberley, starring Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and all of their friends? How can you go wrong? But it was only okay. I felt that the characters I loved so much in Pride and Prejudice were missing from this book… especially when Elizabeth reflects that she wouldn’t have married Darcy without money. The true Elizabeth married for love and got money as a fun bonus – that’s the Austen way. This Elizabeth was not the same Elizabeth that I rooted for in Austen’s masterpiece. That sort of ruined the experience of Death Comes to Pemberley for me – which was a shame, because it could have been quite the fun romp.
The House at Tyneford, by Natasha Solomons – I had very high hopes for this book, and they weren’t disappointed. The House at Tyneford is the story of a young Jewish woman who flees Austria during the years before World War II, heading for the safety of England on a “domestic service visa” in which she will take up a position as housemaid in one of England’s great houses. Elise isn’t an ordinary housemaid – the daughter of an opera singer and a famous novelist, she’s used to parties and champagne and silk dresses and being waited on by her own maid, not to hard work and sacrifice and disrespect. But as Elise grows into her own in England, she befriends the son of the master of the house in which she works, and their friendship will blossom into a romance that will have profound effects on everyone who lives at Tyneford. This was a lovely story – well-written, heart-wrenching and uplifting all at once. I was really afraid it would stink, because it’s exactly the type of book I build up in my head until there’s no way it can meet my expectations. Happily, this one did.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, by Mindy Kaling – So. Much. Fun. After Tyneford I needed some laughs so I turned to someone that I think is absolutely hysterical – Mindy Kaling, better known as the shallow, dippy customer service representative Kelly Kapoor in the American version of The Office. You wouldn’t know it to watch her none-too-bright character, but Mindy is actually brilliant (Dartmouth grad – almost as good as Cornell!) and has been a writer/producer on the show since the first season. Mindy’s book is part memoir, part stream-of-consciousness-random-goofiness and I laughed until I cried. I knew that Mindy was smarter than Kelly, but after reading about her journey from a childhood as a “timid chubster afraid of her own bike” all the way to the glittering lights of Hollywood, I had a whole new respect for her and enjoyed Kelly that much more the next time I tuned into The Office. (Also, Ryan – LEAVE KELLY ALONE. She deserves better than you! So says Pam, and so say I.)
Village School, by Miss Read (Fairacre #1) – I’ve been meaning to dive into the Fairacre books for years and finally made the time. If the first book is any indication, these stories about life in a tiny English village during the 1950s, as narrated by the village schoolmistress, are sweet and witty. I loved my first visit to Fairacre and will be going back at the earliest opportunity.
Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell – This memoir of a kitchen maid serving in England’s great houses during the early 20th century was fascinating. It ranged from funny to tragic, and there was always an undercurrent of mild bitterness at the fact that some people are born into lives of ease and leisure, while others – perhaps more deserving – have to work hard from cradle to grave. Margaret Powell started her life “in service” at age 13 and continued to read and seek knowledge until she finally married out of the “downstairs” life and into a home of her own. It was an absolutely intriguing look at a world that is long gone now, that seems romantic but that had a propensity to trample on the very people who made everything possible.
11/22/63, by Stephen King – My first, and probably only Stephen King, but I loved it. Loved. Time travel novels are kind of my kryptonite and this one was ah-mazing. Jake Epping is a high school teacher in present-day Maine, divorced from a manipulative alcoholic, when he reads an essay by one of his night GED students about the night the student’s father committed a brutal multiple murder. That shocking tale is still reverberating in Jake’s head when his sort-of friend Al Templeton drops a major bombshell: the storeroom in Al’s diner is a portal to 1958. A time-traveler who’s willing to risk… well… everything could pop through, take up residence in the past, and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK in 1963. Al can’t carry the mission through himself – he’s returned from an attempt just to die of lung cancer. Jake is intrigued, and he thinks he might be able to stop his student’s father from committing his horrific crime if he travels back, so he goes. What Jake doesn’t bargain for is falling in love – which he does, with a lovely (albeit klutzy) librarian named Sadie Dunhill. Will Jake be able to carry out his “business” in the past and save JFK, or will his love for Sadie distract him from the dangerous work he has to do? And if he succeeds, what consequences might flow from his act? 11/22/63 is a tome that kept me feverishly turning pages, including over 400 in one day – it’s just that exciting. (It’s also violent and contains some pretty offensive language, so potential readers beware.) This wasn’t Stephen King’s usual fare, which might be why I loved it so much – because horror doesn’t hold much appeal for me, although time travel / suspense / love stories do. (I loved Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and King thanks Finney in his acknowledgements – makes sense.) After reading this heart-wrenching page-turner, there’s nothing for me to do but add my voice to the chorus saying… All hail the King.
Well, I felt as though I started April off slow, but picked up steam once I realized that I had to read 1,927 pages by May 7th. I made good progress on that goal and read steadily throughout the second half of the month, averaging out to about two books a week. On the other side, I can now say that April was a particularly good reading month for me. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? was hysterical and Village School was a dream. But 11/22/63 was a book that cast a spell over me, keeping me turning pages at a speed and intensity I haven’t had since The Hunger Games. And now, time to look forward. I have some fun books on the agenda for May and I can’t wait to dig into them!