French Illusions

Title: The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg
Publisher: Random House
368 pp
Genre: historical fiction, biographical novel, literary fiction, George Sand
5/4.5 stars****
Author: Elizabeth Berg is a NYTimes best selling author (25 books). Open House was an Oprah a bookclub select (2000). Durable Goods and Joy School were selected by ALA as a Best Book of the year. Talk before Sleep was shortlisted for an ABBY Award (1996). She won the 1997 NE booksellers Award for her body of work. A nonfiction work Escaping into the Open: the Art of Writing True was published in 1999. I was introduced to her writing when I lived in MN as she was born in St Paul. I would rate her novels consistently 4 stars, although I have always found them sentimental. This novel is different from her others, in that it is a biographical novel of a famous literary bohemian, George Sand. I personally think it is her best novel (5 stars for the writing/ emotion and 4 stars for the technical plotting, although her life is quite difficult to sort out). I put this book on several friends must read list two months ago when I first read it. A second reading was equally rewarding.
Story Line:
This novel reads like a memoir, in lyrical first person. It concerns the French romantic writer George Sand, (1804-1876) the pseudonym for Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin/Dudevent. Here, as an older woman, she is retracing her steps. Memories which can always be somewhat unreliable can also be vividly informative with the distance of time.
Berg has an intimate, sympathetic voice. From an unusual and unhappy childhood, to a disastrous marriage, her early years reveal her intelligence and understanding of an unforgiving society. In Paris she gives herself a fresh start pursuing her dream of writing and a new name. The success of her first novel gives her a degree of independence as her husband continues to squander her inheritance.
She embraces life, unconventional and scandalous to the times, a pioneer feminist. There is a cast of characters (and lovers) in her life that is larger than life: Alfred de Musset, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Marie Dorval, Frederic Chopin, Pauline Viardot. Many appear in her works. She wrote five memoirs, 42 novels and 12 plays which gave her some financial security to live an independent life. She was also conflicted, always seeking love while being independent. I was surprised by her vulnerability, yet in relation to her childhood, understood her choices. Her lasting love (10 years with Chopin) is a small portion of this novel, almost an afterthought for an extremely complicated relationship: friend, lover, confidante, nurse.
Sand was strong and disciplined with her writing, yet vulnerable and influenced by her passions (children, artists, lovers). Is it not telling that Victor Hugo could boast of 2000 conquests, while Sand had perhaps 20 lovers? Much criticism and antipathy has been generated of her and her works simply because she was not a “proper lady”. If it seems like a sad novel, the timelessness and resilience of her art shines through.
In The Dream Lover, there is an everyday, ordinary feeling for what was then an unconventional and controversial woman. It is a well researched and thoughtful account, true to the character of a unique literary figure. The reader will note many parallels to current affairs: wide ranging book club discussions are expected. The pace of this novel is leisurely and descriptive, almost the 19th century writing style. Yet these were also turbulent times with enormous social and political change. It was also very interesting to get the feel of her life in conjunction with what she was writing, a perspective on her work. This is beautifully written (I have 1/3 rd of the book highlighted for lyrical passages). I would have appreciated a list of sources, as well as excellent translations. (I can still remember considering one novel dreadful in English class and being completely changed by a different translation. See Kathleen a Robin Hart.) There are fabulous descriptions of the beauty and energy of Paris, gardens and estates of France, the sublime nature of the countryside as well as interesting portraits of social interactions and mores. I hope this novel brings her work more exposure. There is also an interesting PBS series on her life.

“There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” George Sand

Read On:
George Sand Story of my Life, Indiana, Gabriel (translated by Kathleen Robin Hart)
Susan Cheever American Bloomsbury
Megan Marshall Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller
Benita Eisler Chopin’s Funeral
Dan Hofstadter The Love Affair as a work of Art
Nancy Horan Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Robin Oliveira I have Always Loved You
Susanne Dunlap Liszt’s Kiss
Lucasta Miller The Bronte Myth
Nancy Milford Savage Beauty
Dea Birkett Spinsters Abroad
AS Byatt Possession
Quotes about her:
“What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.” Ivan Turgenev
“George Sand was an idea. She has been released from the flesh, and is now free. She is dead, and now she is living.” Victor Hugo
To George Sand: A recognition Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“What inexhaustible goodness, always so quiet and calm, always such an essential part of her character.” Pauline Viardot

RPL has two copies (6 holds) and an audio version. And all of Berg’s novels.

Read as an ARC from Netgalley!


National Library Week

C.H. Armstrong Books

Okay, I admit.  I’m a procrastinator!  It’s National Library Week and I’m three days late to the celebration.  Cut me some slack…I’ve been busy!

Is there anything better in this whole world than a library?  It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re big or small, libraries provide an invaluable service to the community.  I’ve used libraries for finding the best new reads; to do research for papers; to send a quick e-mail on their computers in a pinch (pre-smart phone); and even just to  hang out and hide from the rest of the world.  Where else can you do all of that without paying a dime?

Okay…that’s not true.  As a habitual procrastinator, I’m a major contributor to my local library’s coffers.  It’s just not possible for me to return a book on time.  Humph!

8194088365_c27e71b09f_b El Reno Carnegie Library – El Reno, OK

I remember my library growing up —…

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Tudor Alchemy

Title: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Mary Lawrence
Publisher: Kensington Books
304pp April 28, 2015
Genre: Mystery, historical mystery, Tudor England, series, Henry VIII
4 stars****
Author: Mary Lawrence is a cytologist, who also berry farms in Maine. She enjoys reading and writing in the Tudor period: this is the first of a planned three mystery series featuring Blanca Goddard. She was also a finalist in RWA’s Golden Heart contest and won the Golden Claddagh in historical fiction (2010). She was also a finalist in Gotham YA Novel discovery contest (2010). Fiona Buckley recommended this mystery so I decided to read this new author. I found the book to be well written and researched with layered intricate plotting. I also enjoyed numerous proverbs “It’s hard to shake a spider out of its web.” “…as drunk as a mouse in a barrel of rum.” “Coin speaks louder than virtue here.” “Seems like a mountain of effort for a pebble of worth.” I loved the vocabulary but also “some I simply made up.” I am looking forward to the continuation of this series.
Note: I could find 5 other recent novels with this title by authors JE Deardon, Anthony Aiden, Eileen Kernaghan, Katherine McMahon and Elaine Knighton.
Story Line:
The story is told from multiple viewpoints, which presents additional perspectives on both the plot and the locations. It has an interesting mix of misfit friends, vividly portraying ordinary Tudor life. There are no Courts here. Blanca is the estranged daughter of an alchemist (Albern Goddard), a devout Catholic and somewhat shady character. She saved him from the gallows when he was suspected of poisoning the King. Details of this story would be fascinating, but also gave her the experience to save herself. She works in Southwark slums to aid the poor with her herbs and medicinal plants. She’s altruistic and known for her kindness, remedies and healing discoveries (a salve to tame the French pox enabled her to get a room of her own; she also created a rat poison to help control the plagues and squalor). She’s unconventional, smart, strong and an appealing heroine. She is also young and unsure of herself. When her friend Jolyn dies, seemingly from one of her tonics, she is an instant suspect. The constable (Patch) is perhaps the only character I didn’t like- he wants her to hang whether she is guilty or not. As she tries to clear her name, bodies and larger plots provide twists in the tale. It is filled with witty observations on the grim reality of 16th century London.
Read On:
Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series
Vanora Bennett Portrait of an Unknown Woman
Goes perfectly with PBS Wolff Hall
(Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies)
Also recently reviewed Martin Lake A Love most Dangerous and Kathy Lynn Emerson Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe.
Opening line: London March 1543. Imagine a time when the good king’s ship The Mary Rose moors within sight of His Majesty’s WhiteHall residence, its four masts reaching skyward like trees sprouting on the River Thames.
Closing line: …London would forever struggle, but she would forever endure.
She studied the remnants of crushed herbs, mashed frog bones, and pulverized chalk; her blue eyes were tinged nearly purple with fatigue.
A public hanging was preferable to being eaten alive by rats.
For if only one man is left standing, a bribe cannot bite.

Read as an ARC from Netgalley: Thanks!

National Library Week- celebrate reading!

Title: A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark,
528 pp April 7, 2015
Genre: historical, mystery, Jacobite, romance, romantic suspense, scottish,
5 stars*****
Author: Susanna Kearsley is a favourite author of mine. I have reviewed several of her books, and recommended all of them. I was hooked when the first reminded me of reading Mary Stewart. Don’t miss The Rose Garden, Shadowy Horses and Mariana. But when her stories gathered Scottish mists and legends I was in thrall and this novel continues this with another magical setting. The historical details are well researched. The gothic suspense is real and building.The voice of each character is pitch perfect. Her romance is subtle and charming.
I found both stories equally heartwarming- in fact I would have enjoyed a separate full length book on each. There are interesting complements, and resonance for many cultures. I love the feel and heft of her books, and savor every word. Three times for this novel: once to melt into the story, two to read for highlighted quotes and review and another for an appreciation of the story structure and conclusion. This helped to reestablish my initial thoughts and feelings. I especially enjoyed reading Kearsley’s acknowledgements and the reasons for telling Mary’s story.
Story Line: This book stands on its own, but the richness of the time period is more fully developed in sequence with The Winter Sea and Firebird. You will enjoy brief vignettes with some of these characters in this novel. There are two distinct story lines, although no time travel is involved. Both are complex, well paced with fascinating characters. The present day story concerns Sara Thomas, with code breaking abilities, who journeys to France to decipher a diary, potentially revealing of the Jacobite cause. An author, Alistair Scott (a champion of Scotland, with history of the ordinary people) is working on a new book and needs a coded source. She has asperger’s and is wary and unsure of herself in the modern world. Her journey is an extremely touching, charming story. Asperger’s was an unusual twist but contributes to her computer and math skills, while also revealed her to be alone, lonely. Understanding Luc Saban develops a lasting relationship.
Her transcription unfolds the story of Mary Dundas, the daughter of an exiled Jacobite, living in France, 1732. She is a brave young woman (21), smart, creative and strong, who with the aid of a highland warrior High MacPherson, travel south to Rome on a perilous journey to reach the protection of the King James III Court (father to Bonnie Prince Charlie). Instead of the expected every day diary details, we are given a story with court intrigue, actual details of financial scandal, and arduous, dangerous 18th century travel as well as an interesting time capsule. Highlanders, as written by Kearsley are simply unforgettable and wonderful.
Read On:
Mary Stewart’s gothic suspense
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series
Mark Haddon Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (aspherger’s)
Opening line: My cousin didn’t try to catch the bride’s bouquet.
….history is not just the tale of the victors. It’s the tale of the privileged.
You’re like the lone Mac in an office of PCs. They’re all running windows and you’re running OS X.
Tell Alistair Scott that if he’s buying me whisky, my preference is 16 yr old Lagavulin.
My grass is green enough.
Are all men of the Highlands so unfathomable?
That was the Griogal Cridhe, a widow’s lament about seeing her husband beheaded. (not a lullaby then)
The past, Mary thought, was itself a great predator. Chasing you always behind in a tireless pursuit…
….know from experience frogs sometime stayed frogs no matter how often you kissed them.
I liked her sense of humor and her strength, and her tenacity, and her determination to let nothing keep her down. (Sara on Mary)

Many thanks to Netgalley for an advance ebook copy; I had to purchase my own!

Happy Easter

Fill the basket with books for a Hopping good time!

One of the Easter contemporary traditions I love occurs in the Nordic countries where they read or watch murder mysteries on Easter. All major television channels run crime and detective stories and magazines print special “whodunnit” stories. New detective novels are scheduled to be published on or before Easter. I got into the spirit watching Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson last night (11pm-1 am) on the local PBS station. I love her mystery novels which highlight the Edinburgh PI Jackson Brodie and highly recommend both the books and the television.
Time to start a new reading tradition!
Other mysteries I have enjoyed this year include:
Chris Brookmyre Dead Girl Walking
Ian Caldwell The Fifth Gospel
Ann Cleve Dead Water Shetland mysteries
Kathy Lynn Emerson Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe
Felix Francis Damage
Elly Griffiths The Ghost Fields
Susan Hill The Mist in the Mirror, Soul of Discretion
Anthony Horowitz Moriarity
Simone St James The Other Side of Midnight, Silence for the Dead
Craig Johnson Wait for Signs
Susanna Kearsley A Desperate Fortune
Laurie R King Dreaming Spies (Sherlock!)
With Leslie Klinger In the company of Sherlock Holmes
Peter May Blacklight Blue(Scots)
Paula Paul Medium Dead
Anne Perry A New York Christmas
Thomas Perry A String of Beads
Ian Rankin (intro) Death Sentences
Mike Ripley Margery Allingham’s Mr Campion’s Farewell, Fox
Imogene Robertson Paris Winter
Olen Steinhauer All the Old Knives
Charles Todd A Fine Summer’s Day
Jacqueline Winspear A Dangerous Place