June 27, 2018

Book Review: The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline.

In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they -- and Grace -- know the truth.

In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace's youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever.

The novel is full of secrets -- some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history.

I was tearing through a steady diet of domestic thrillers this month when I had a sudden craving for something different. Something that Kate Morton might write, thought I. I half-heartedly perused online, which did not lack for suggestions. “For fans of Kate Morton” is an enticing promise on many a historical novel. But none could tempt so I just decided to read the original, one-and-only.  The House of Riverton is the one that made me a Kate Morton fan and upon revisiting it, I fell in love once again with this haunting story. 

Current summaries compare this novel to Downton Abbey but The House of Riverton was written years before --- and did it much better. The upstairs-downstairs dynamic. The glimpse of English gentry just before and then after World War I, class uprising and suffrage changed everything. 

Secrets, terrible mistakes, doomed love affairs – it’s all here, irresistibly unfolding before my captive eyes and beguiling me anew as if I had not read it all twice before. The journey and the ending are no less devastating. 

This time around, after turning the last page, I began imagining who I would cast as the main characters if I were to make the movie.  If you’ve read The House at Riverton, what do you think of my casting choices?

Robbie Hunter – I immediately thought of Colin Morgan as the doomed poet. He’s striking and beautiful, dark and tragic.

Emmeline Hartford – This was an easy pick as well. Lily James is a shoo-in for the reckless society girl.

Hannah Hartford – I had a bit of trouble with this character. Not only did she have to be beautiful, but have a mysterious aloofness to her. Some substance and spirit, in contrast to Emmeline’s party-loving personality. I loved Blake Lively’s performance as the remote beauty in Age of Adeline, which reminded me very much of Hannah.

Grace – I had trouble with this one too, and in the end I had to refer to the book’s rather suggestive minor character – an actress in modern times who will play Grace in the movie in the book, whose name was “Kiera.”

June 18, 2018

Book Review: Matchmaking for Beginners by Maddie Dawson

Marnie MacGraw wants an ordinary life—a husband, kids, and a minivan in the suburbs. Now that she’s marrying the man of her dreams, she’s sure this is the life she’ll get. Then Marnie meets Blix Holliday, her fiancĂ©’s irascible matchmaking great-aunt who’s dying, and everything changes—just as Blix told her it would.

When her marriage ends after two miserable weeks, Marnie is understandably shocked. She’s even more astonished to find that she’s inherited Blix’s Brooklyn brownstone along with all of Blix’s unfinished “projects”: the heartbroken, oddball friends and neighbors running from happiness. Marnie doesn’t believe she’s anything special, but Blix somehow knew she was the perfect person to follow in her matchmaker footsteps.

And Blix was also right about some things Marnie must learn the hard way: love is hard to recognize, and the ones who push love away often are the ones who need it most.

Matchmaking for Beginners is a very charming book, much like the eccentric and otherworldly Blix.  She sees people’s auras and colors and has a sixth sense of which person should go with whom. Knowing that she’s about to die, she bequeaths her Brooklyn house to Marnie, her nephew’s ex, whom she’s only met once. Along with the house, Marnie inherits Blix’s friends and Blix’s magical matchmaking gift. Marnie is at first resistant but eventually, she finds that she was meant for this life.

“You need to forget what society has told you about life and expectations, and don’t let anybody make you pretend.  You are enough, just the way you are – do you hear me? You have many gifts.  Many, many gifts.”

Although the book ends happily, some aspects of the story just felt wrong to me. First is Blix’s declaration to Marnie that she was meant for a “big life” as opposed to the ordinary life Marnie saw for herself – being married, domestic bliss, a job, children, etc. But by “big life”, Blix meant a life in Brooklyn in a charming brownstone with a collection of bohemian friends.  That doesn’t sound very “big” to me.  To me, “big life” means she’s going to find the cure for cancer or have adventures in the Amazon or jump out of planes. Suburbs = small.  Brooklyn = big.  I found nothing especially “big” about the life the author described.  

Secondly, it really grated on my nerves when Blix, and then Marnie, insisted on the introverted Patrick attending parties. The author made it seem like preferring to be around one person at a time versus lots of people as pathetically sad.  Only when he came upstairs to go to their parties was he deemed saved by their extroverted ways.  As an introvert, I found nothing wrong with Patrick preferring to hang with one friend at a time. I hate it when people insist that something must be wrong with me for not wanting to be around lots of people all the time.  This of course is my personal preference. I just saw these scenes in a different way than the author intended. I felt really bad for Patrick being forced to be sociable when he did not want to be.  Blix and Marnie should just have accepted Patrick just the way he was – the way true friends should.

“There is so much fear to wade through before you get to love.”

“The subversive truth about love is that it really is the big deal everyone makes it out to be, and it’s not some form of security or an insurance policy against loneliness.  It’s everything, love is.  It runs the whole universe.”

June 11, 2018

Book Review: Half Bad by Sally Green

In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and sixteen-year-old Nathan, who is both. Nathan’s father is the world’s most powerful and cruel Black witch, and his mother is dead. He is hunted from all sides. Trapped in a cage, beaten and handcuffed, Nathan must escape before his seventeenth birthday, at which point he will receive three gifts from his father and come into his own as a witch—or else he will die. But how can Nathan find his father when his every action is tracked, when there is no one safe to trust—not even family, not even the girl he loves?

In the tradition of Patrick Ness and Markus Zusak, Half Bad is a gripping tale of alienation and the indomitable will to survive, a story that will grab hold of you and not let go until the very last page.

I dare you to read the first 3% of Half Bad and not immediately want to drop everything else in your life. Because that happened to me and unfortunately, I was at work so spent an unbearable but delicious few hours until I got off, anticipating how I was going to tear into the following 97% for the rest of the night.

What hooked me so hard and so fast? I knew very little about this book before downloading it.  Witches.  That’s it. That’s all I knew. So when the novel opened with an arresting second person POV– putting me in the place of the boy in the cage - I was instantly riveted.  How was this poor creature going to escape his impossible situation and how did he end up in a cage in the first place? I literally woke up at 1:00 a.m. in the morning just to continue reading this book. 

The white witches are considered “good” and the black witches “bad.” The dichotomy is very stark and troubling as it seems to be along racial lines as well. The white witches seem to be, well very white Caucasians and the baddest of the black witches is darker-skinned. Green stops short of making an overt statement about good/bad white-skinned/dark-skinned, but perhaps she’ll develop this further in the sequels.  

Inspite of the great amount of wince-inducing violence, mostly directed at our protagonist, Nathan, and my not-so-clear understanding of how this magical world operated, Half Bad was an exciting discovery. Doubly so because I instantly got the next book, Half Wild, as soon I finished reading the last page.  

June 4, 2018

Book Review: What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine

Cursed. Maisie Cothay has never known the feel of human flesh: born with the power to kill or resurrect at her slightest touch, she has spent her childhood sequestered in her family’s manor at the edge of a mysterious forest. Maisie’s father, an anthropologist who sees her as more experiment than daughter, has warned Maisie not to venture into the wood. Locals talk of men disappearing within, emerging with addled minds and strange stories. What he does not tell Maisie is that for over a millennium her female ancestors have also vanished into the wood, never to emerge—for she is descended from a long line of cursed women.

But one day Maisie’s father disappears, and Maisie must venture beyond the walls of her carefully constructed life to find him. Away from her home and the wood for the very first time, she encounters a strange world filled with wonder and deception. Yet the farther she strays, the more the wood calls her home. For only there can Maisie finally reckon with her power and come to understand the wildest parts of herself.

"They grew me inside my mother, which was unusual because she was dead." - Don't even try resisting this book with a first line like that. 

Maisie kills her mother while still her womb because she has the power to kill - and revive - with a touch of her hand.  Somehow, she survives in her dead mother's womb and is delivered to a life where her protective father and housekeeper keep her sequestered from the world in the family estate called Urizon.  She grows up without being hugged or kissed or touched at all.  Her power is such that she can even make inanimate objects, such as wood floors, come alive. It turns out the Maisie is one in a long line of women who are "cursed" with supernatural gifts that have somewhat to do with the mysterious wood near Urizon. 

The narrative alternates between Maisie's story and that of the other women in her family throughout the ages who have been afflicted. I was more drawn to these other storylines and felt a shock every time the narrative switched back to the present. The overall theme linking the past and Maisie is one of magic intertwined with female sexuality and oppression. Somehow the wood, where the women disappear into is at once menacing and a safe space - where they live in immortality. What Should Be Wild has a strange atmosphere that drew me in immediately.  I took my time in this world and although some of the revelations were unexpected, the novel was an overall satisfying experience.