Review Roundup, Part 2

Saturday, May 24, 2014

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A vivid and compelling story of love, war and secrets, set against the backdrop of WWI France. 'In the beginning, it was the summers I remembered - long warm days under the palest blue skies, the cornflowers and forget-me-nots lining the road through the Lys forest, the buzz of insects going about their work, Violet telling me lies.' Iris is getting old. A widow, her days are spent living quietly and worrying about her granddaughter, Grace, a headstrong young doctor. It's a small sort of life. But one day an invitation comes for Iris through the post to a reunion in France, where she served in a hospital during WWI. Determined to go, Iris is overcome by the memories of the past, when as a shy, naive young woman she followed her fifteen-year-old brother, Tom, to France in 1914 intending to bring him home. On her way to find Tom, Iris comes across the charismatic Miss Ivens, who is setting up a field hospital in the old abbey of Royaumont, north of Paris. Putting her fears aside, Iris decides to stay at Royaumont, and it is there that she truly comes of age, finding her capability and her strength, discovering her passion for medicine, making friends with the vivacious Violet and falling in love. But war is a brutal thing, and when the ultimate tragedy happens, there is a terrible price that Iris has to pay, a price that will echo down the generations. (from Goodreads)

Another great library sale cart find! Snow is worthy to be included in the company of Kate Morton and Katherine Webb historical novels that span past and present narratives and include big secrets. I was so pleasantly surprised to read a dual-time period novel that uses the revelation of secrets as a driving force of the plot but doesn't completely rely on those secrets as the only purpose for its existence. The characters feel real and true to their time and there's a richness of historical detail here that is unusual in this type of novel. I feel as though I got a real sense of what it was like to be a nurse in WWI France. There were some lovely descriptive passages and the secondary characters were quite vividly drawn. I sped through this book but stopped to mark many passages to come back to again and again. A highly recommended read!

On a chilly November night in 1407, Louis of Orleans was murdered by a band of masked men. The crime stunned and paralyzed France since Louis had often ruled in place of his brother King Charles, who had gone mad. As panic seized Paris, an investigation began. In charge was the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, the city's chief law enforcement officer--and one of history's first detectives. As de Tignonville began to investigate, he realized that his hunt for the truth was much more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. A rich portrait of a distant world, BLOOD ROYAL is a gripping story of conspiracy, crime and an increasingly desperate hunt for the truth. And in Guillaume de Tignonville, we have an unforgettable detective for the ages, a classic gumshoe for a cobblestoned era (from Goodreads)

I wanted to like this a lot more than I actually did. Jager has set himself up with a great premise and his opening chapter is written so vividly I could see a movie of Medieval Paris playing in my head. Unfortunately, the rest of the book feels thin and padded with unnecessary, repetitive detail to make a full-length book (and even then it just comes in at 300 pages). I also think the jacket copy does not do the book any favors - I came into it expecting more detail on Guillaume de Tignonville and why this was the first mystery to be "solved" by a detective. I don't want to reveal spoilers but this really doesn't describe how the case was actually solved. I would also love to have learned more about the "case file" that was discovered centuries later - the jacket copy made it sound as though this was an undiscovered crime but it was actually quite familiar to me and I have only a passing acquaintance with French history. These are definitely quibbles and I'm sure many people will be able to pass these over and enjoy the book as a fun, light read. 

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarchtakes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us. (from Goodreads)

Selling this book to me is a bit like preaching to the choir - a sensitive, bookish young woman grows up hoping to get out of her small town and experience the wider world. Along the way, she has a treasured classic of English literature to help guide her through life, love and everything in between? Sign me up! 

I've never actually read Middlemarch. I've never even read any of George Eliot's works. But this premise alone and the alluring mix of biography, memoir and literary criticism was enough to pull me in. Along the way, I learned enormous amounts about women's rights, mid-19th century literature, England, the art of close reading, marriage, childbirth and middle age. This lovely, thoughtful book somehow managed to convince me that I need to devote a significant part of my life to actually reading Middlemarch while also leaving me with the feeling that I already have read it and have discussed it with a knowledgeable, witty friend. Who could ask for more? 

I will say that my lack of knowledge about Middlemarch made the organization of the chapters a bit confusing - Mead jumps around in the chronology of the novel to make it fit to the chronology of her life. Not knowing the characters or the plot, I felt a little bit lost at times and this meant that I put the book down a couple of times before finally picking it up and finishing it. Readers who are more familiar with Middlemarch may not have this problem. 

I would happily follow Mead through the entire canon of English literature and hope that this book is such a success that it inspired numerous copycats in this delightful - and overlooked - sub-genre of books. 

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review. 

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