Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

Published by: St. Martin's Press
Published on: July 29, 2014
Page Count: 480
Genre: Historical fiction
My Reading Format: ARC provided by NetGalley on behalf of publisher
Available Formats: Hardback, paperback, audiobook, Audible, Kindle ebook

My Review: 

Empress Elizabeth "Sisi" of Austria, in need of a change of scenery and some space from her husband Emperor Franz Joseph, travels to the English countryside to engage in fox hunting with her English royal counterparts. Here she is provided with Bay Middleton, a hunting guide and accomplished horseman who is without a fortune. Bay is engaged to Charlotte Baird, a noblewoman who is bossed around by her older brother and his fiance Augusta. Charlotte looks forward to starting her life with Bay but he is sidetracked by his employ by Sisi, who is older but beautiful. The attraction between Sisi and Bay is mutual, and Bay is torn between the potential for an exciting affair with the Empress or a comfortable life with Charlotte. 

I've long had a fascination with the British royal family, and since my trip to Austria last year, I've now added to that my obsession with Austrian-Hungarian royalty. This book, a marriage of the two, seemed like a perfect to-read for me. Therefore, I liked the book on the whole just for that reason. I also liked learning more about a traditional English hunting expedition. From a technical standpoint, I like Goodwin's writing style. She uses description beautifully and told the story in a way that was enjoyable to me as a reader.

I had trouble with a couple things with regard to character development. Charlotte is a well-rounded character, and I really felt for the tough spot she was in. Bay, however, made his choice very quickly right at the end of the book, which felt forced to me. Sisi was an interesting character, but I would have liked to know more about her inner struggle between her attraction to Bay and her loyalty to her husband and family. Overall I thought this was a fun read, even though I felt the plot was resolved abruptly. I'd love to do more reading about Sisi.

Three out of five stars

If you liked this book, you’ll like The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin, Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall, A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton and Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Two Fictional Takes on Zelda Fitzgerald

I liked the window in on Zelda Fitzgerald and her tumultuous marriage to writer F. Scott Fitzgerald by fictional psychiatric nurse Anna Howard in Call Me Zelda: A Novel by Erika Robuck. Anna becomes a Fitzgerald family employee, leaving her job at a Baltimore residential psychiatric clinic. She has a way with Zelda as much as anyone else does, and Zelda and Scott come to depend upon Anna for help. Soon she is spending most of her time at their home, caring for their daughter and completing other household tasks that fall outside the scope of her original agreement with the Fitzgeralds. As those interested in the Fitzgeralds' personal lives already know, their marriage, home life and finances were in a constant up-and-down motion, and good moods could shift at any moment.

What I liked about this book is that we got to know Anna both during and away from her work with the Fitzgeralds. We had a window into her world too, and it was one I was very interested in reading about. Anna has experienced tremendous loss in her personal life before the novel begins but remains very close to her extended family. Not only is she a gifted and devoted nurse, but she is a caregiver for her aging parents and close to her brother, a priest. At the risk of giving the book away, I like that Anna got her happy ending.

The book pulls away some from the Fitzgeralds in the second half of the book when Anna remains in Baltimore and Zelda Fitzgerald goes to stay at Highland Hospital, Asheville's psychiatric hospital. Though Anna thinks of Scott and Zelda often, she has not been in their employ for over a decade when a letter from Zelda causes Anna to make another journey for her former patient. This trip ends in Asheville the day before a fire destroyed the main building of the hospital, killing several patients who were not able to escape from their locked rooms. Zelda was one of these patients.

Directly after finishing Call Me Zelda, I dove right into Guests on Earth by Lee Smith. I had the pleasure of hearing Smith read from this novel a few months ago, which really makes a story come alive for me. I liked Guests on Earth for many of the same reasons I liked Call Me Zelda: it's an observer's description of the Fitzgeralds, except this time mostly Zelda. I thought Guests on Earth was a good one. I enjoyed reading it (I've never met a Lee Smith novel I didn't like), but it had less Zelda in it than I envisioned before I started reading the book.

Using a similar technique, Smith writes her novel using Highland Hospital as the setting and the narrator is a fellow patient, a girl named Evalina. Evalina's life at Highland, including her encounters with Zelda, is what makes up the plot of this novel. Evalina Toussaint is a misplaced young girl in need of a caring environment in which to grow up, and ends up at Asheville's Highland Hospital where Zelda is also a patient. The two get to know each other during Zelda's early days at the hospital, but in later years the two don't have a close relationship, though each of the women is still a Highland Hospital resident.

This book really is about Evalina's life, most of which happened at Highland Hospital. Evalina befriends many fellow residents, takes a leave of absence to see the world with a man she doesn't end up marrying as planned, and winds up back at Highland as a part-time staff member. Like Call Me Zelda, Guests on Earth ends with the hospital's tragic fire but the getting there (even though I knew it was coming) seemed rushed at the end.

Both books paint Zelda as troubled but extremely talented at writing (Call Me Zelda) and dancing (Guests on Earth). I'm just fascinated by the Fitzgeralds.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review: A Wedding in Provence: A Novel by Ellen Sussman

Published by: Ballantine Books
Published on: July 15, 2014
Page Count: 288
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: ARC provided by publisher via NetGalley
Available Formats: Kindle ebook and hardcover

My Review: 

Have you ever been a part of a wedding (your own or a family member or close friend's), and in the days leading up to the big event, tensions and relationship drama and past issues all begin to surface, layers peeling away like an onion? We all have. Weddings bring out the best and worst in people. All that togetherness can really make things interesting.

That's the case in A Wedding in Provence for the soon-to-be wed couple Brody and Olivia. They've arrived in the French countryside a few days before their ceremony, to be held at the inn owned and operated by Olivia's best friend Emily and her husband Sebastian. As the other wedding guests arrive, we learn about their relationships with one another and their past and present lives. There's Brody's womanizing best friend Jake, Olivia's two adult daughters Nell and Carly, Brody's mother Fanny and Nell's date Gavin who all bring their (literal and figurative) baggage with them for the weekend. Also present are the shadows of others who aren't attending the wedding: Nell's recently deceased boyfriend Chaney, Nell and Carly's father, Carly's workaholic boyfriend Wes, Brody's father and widower Brody's first wife and first love.

The relationships are complicated and still in progress in many cases. Olivia wants to relax as the bride-to-be but is mothering her two troubled daughters, both of whom are working through issues from their lives back home and undergoing a period of self-discovery. Their father is still a part of their lives (as much as he can be), and Nell and Carly are unsure about letting their mother's new husband into their lives. Nell still struggles with her boyfriend's suicide months before, and is still making the rash decisions she has made her whole life, such as bringing her seat mate from her flight with her to the wedding. Gavin seems like fun at first but is sketchy, not surprisingly bailing on Nell as soon as he gets the chance. Carly, the put-together, predictable sister, is rethinking her boring life with a boring boyfriend and let loose a little. Brody is navigating his parents' failed marriage, and father's sickness and absence from the wedding. Even innkeepers Emily and Sebastian have hit a rough patch in their marriage.

Overall, this book is a fun read. I would have loved to see this French town on the Mediterranean, and its fabulous wine and food take more of a central role in the book. At times I found the characters and their sex lives to be tiring. But, the characters are complex and were enjoyable. At the end of the book Olivia is the beautiful bride and Brody the happy groom, and they are married surrounded by their favorite friends and relatives. The book ends but not neatly, which is, I think, just like real life, which has many of the same themes this book has: second chances, making up for lost time, healing, forgiveness and love.

Three and a half stars out of five

If you liked this book, you’ll like French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France by Richard Goodman and Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes (for an American take on visiting the European countryside), and Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin and Once Upon a Time There Was You by Elizabeth Berg (for stories about weddings).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Review: The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Published by: Atria Books
Published on: July 8, 2014
Page Count: 272 pages
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: ARC provided by publisher via NetGalley
Available Formats: Paperback and Kindle e-book

My Review: 

Can you think of a fictional character who is so uptight you read about them wishing they would just lighten up, making their own life and the lives of the character around them easier? A few such characters come to mind for me like that:  Aunt Cordelia in Up a Road Slowly, Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Mrs. Gulch in The Wizard of Oz. But I can't think of any uptight character I liked so much right away as I do Miss Prudencia Prim. The epitome of a Type A personality, the heroine in The Awakening of Miss Prim is punctual, dependable, disapproving, rigid and not much fun. She's seeking new scenery and a change in her life. Though overqualified for the position, she applies for a job with and is hired by a man to organize his in-home library, and moves to San Ireneo de Arnois, a small village in France, for several months to complete the job. This self-proclaimed "mistress of the art of delicacy" is ready to jump in with both feet and get her boss, the Man in the Wingchair, all squared away.

Prudencia believed herself to be capable and completely in control of the life she'd chosen for herself (one that includes no wiggle room). However, as Prudencia spends more time in San Ireneo de Arnois, she begins making friends with the children in the household and the townspeople. Many of those friends are women who have ideas about what constitutes a full and complete life for a woman, which at first differ from Prudencia's ideas on the subject. First off, every woman should be married (Prudencia disagrees of course, as she's got her life just how she wants it). Also, every woman should be given time to discover herself (Prudencia believes she already has), and villager Eugenia believes this should happen in Italy.

Things don't go as Prudencia plans. The exasperation she feels toward the Man in the Wingchair not surprisingly softens. She discovers her female friends know some secrets to life that she's previously missed. She is accepted by and learns from the experiences of her boss' mother, with whom she forms a close friendship.

I would have liked to know more about Prudencia's background and would have loved to see more development in her relationship with the children in the household. When she travels to Italy, we know she's become more self-aware by the end of the trip, but it's a transition we sense more than see the details of. Those things are small though in relation to how much I enjoyed the story.  

Yes, I felt pretty sure I knew what was coming but that didn't take anything away from my enjoyment. It echoes of Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Little Women, three of my favorite books. In short, I had fun reading this book, and I think you will too.

Four and a half out of five stars

If you liked this book, you’ll like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Little Women, of course.