Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Books of 2012 - September

Question for you: are there many things on earth nicer than curling up with a good book under a cozy blanket while the rain pours outside?

I submit that there are not. And now to the "books finished in September" list:

1. Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir that Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and Downton Abbey. Non-fiction by Margaret Powell. Two things surprised me about this book: how mean spirited it was at times and how exactly it could have inspired "Downton" since the experiences of Margaret Powell are post-Great War and therefore quite different. The world changed from 1914-1919, as did the expectations of those who served in great houses.

2. Friendship for Grownups: What I Missed and Learned Along the Way. Non-fiction by Lisa Whelchel. I was interested in this one because I'm the first to admit that I'm not great at the "Friend" thing. That's partly because of my introversion and partly for some other reasons that I will not get into here. But anyway, I wanted some inspiration from someone else who had to learn to make friends as an adult and I've enjoyed a few of Whelchel's other books because she has an easy, accessible style despite her relative fame. When I finished the book (which isn't long, by the way) I told Philip, "It was OK but I have one question: where was her husband?"

See, here's the thing: my husband is my best friend. When something happens to me, when I'm hurt, when I'm happy, when I'm trying to figure something out: he's the one I want to talk to most. He's the one who helps me the most. I'm not saying I don't need other friends, I'm just saying that none of them can possibly know me, understand me, and encourage me the way he does. That's basically what marriage vows are: promising before God and human witnesses that we will be one flesh, best friends, and we will "know" each other in every sense of the word.

I didn't think a lot more about it until I read about a week ago that Whelchel and her husband recently divorced. I will not tell you that I saw that coming, I'm just saying I saw evidence in this book that indicated something was off. Your mileage may vary, of course.

3. The Creativity Cure: A Do-It-Yourself Prescription for Happiness. Non-fiction by Carrie & Alton Barron. Psychoanalysis a la Freud and "go take a walk" so you'll feel better. Not what I was expecting.

4. The Forgotten Affairs of Youth. Fiction by Alexander McCall Smith. These books about the philosopher Isabel Dalhousie who lives in Edinburgh have surprising depths.

5. Eve. Fiction by Anna Carey. Dystopian future America with a teenage female protagonist. Interesting premise, slightly obnoxious heroine, glaring failures of logic.

6. The Importance of Being Seven. Fiction by Alexander McCall Smith. Yet another series by Smith. Bertie is a fabulous character and I'm glad he (spoiler alert!) finally gets a little relief from his ridiculous mother and his over-scheduled, over-controlled life. I'm not sure how McCall Smith keeps turning out all these different books in such different series (Ladies' No 1 Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions, Sunday Philosophy Club).

7. The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany 1944-1945. Non-fiction by Ian Kershaw. Kershaw's research is top notch. This one was a slog at times, but worth it to anyone studying or interested in scholarly works on the Second World War.

8. Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion.Non-fiction by Susan Ronald. Fascinating stuff here. Queen Elizabeth I remains one of the most interesting people, not to mention monarchs, who helped shape the Western world. Highly recommend this one.

9. Once: An Eve Novel. Fiction by Anna Carey. 2nd book in the series (see #5 above). Same strengths and problems as before plus another downfall: the secondary characters are not as interesting in this one.I'll still read the final book when it comes out. These are not difficult to read and I do want to know how the author winds it up.

10. Mr. Churchill's Secretary. Fiction by Susan Elia MacNeal. This author has obviously done her homework and research. And, considering the subject matter, I wanted this to be better than I ultimately felt it was. Here are some problems I had:
  • writing a fiction book that features real, historical people is really, really tough. Even if you use words that we know that person (in this case, Churchill) used, it's hard to suspend disbelief and accept that he or she is saying those words to your newly invented characters
  • The nominally American heroine (who happens to be a British citizen, how convenient) is a know it all. She is always, always right. She is also quite self-righteous about this. 
  • The main characters discuss and approve of "alternative" lifestyles in a way that is not period accurate.
  • A faked-out death cheapens some of the actual deaths later in the story.
  • The coincidences stack up: the heroine's knowledge of Bletchley Park, the circumstances of her father's disappearance, the conspiracy...I could go on. Coincidence happens (or seems to happen) in real life but it's a hard sell in a book.
  • Here's my main beef: the POV jumps all over the place. If you're going to be omniscient and know what every character is thinking, then be omniscient. Otherwise it's just sloppy third.
The positive: this book inspired me to get back to work on my own WW2 novel. I told Philip, "I think I can do better than this."

What he said: "I think you can, too. So get to it."

So I did.

And yes, I think I'll give this author another chance in the future. After all, she's writing about my favorite time period and my favorite setting. She may grow as a writer, improve some of those technical problems, and anyway, first novels are notoriously difficult.

Totals for September:
Fiction: 5

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1 comment:

MacKenzie said...

Just wanted to let you know you inspired me to give Alexander McCall Smith another chance and this time, I actually got into the #1 ladies series but I do like Isabel more...and I probably wouldn't even suspect it was the same author if I didn't know better.

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