Friday, March 24, 2017

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War is a historical fiction novel that chronicles the lives of several families in the town of Rye, England prior to World War I. Rye is a real place that still exists today "near the coast in East Sussex. In the centre, cobbled lanes like Mermaid Street are lined with medieval, half-timbered houses. The redbrick Lamb House was once owned by writer Henry James. Nearby, the tower of the Norman St. Mary’s Church overlooks the town. The 14th-century Ypres Tower, which formed part of Rye’s defences, is now Rye Castle Museum, with paintings and displays on local history (Rye, East Sussex).

Simonson drew upon her locale from her own childhood and her depiction of poetry at the heart of the novel from great authors such as Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brook. She even has a character that resembles Henry James (Irish author, but made his home in Rye as noted above).

The novel begins in the summer of 1914 when England knew peace and war was only something spoken of in hushed whispers of "surely not" and "what if." The people of the town subscribed to old-fashioned decorum with proper tea and proper places in society. Agatha Kent, a matriarchal figure for the quaint English village, however, has just ruffled the feathers of the school board by suggesting a woman replace the previous Latin master at the local school. Beatrice Nash is anything but dainty, and is certainly progressive, and her arrival is really the catalyst to the constant change thrust upon the village. While the looming war is certainly not her fault, her character's arrival reads like foreshadowing for the unimaginable devastation of war that will change their village forever.

Simonson writes with a deft hand for both detail and characterization. The progressive women, the conservative mainstays, the poets, the surgeons, the soldiers, the dreamers. She creates a world that is entirely believable and fully cultivated with a plot the lends itself to turning pages, but at quite the leisurely pace.

And this is where I struggled some with the novel - it reads like a Sunday drive...a very slow Sunday drive. The plot builds into a climatic development, but it happens so late in the novel I found myself putting the book down a lot to see what else I could do. It's not a bad book, it's just not a riveting book. I really liked her characters and it certainly carried with it a "Downtownesque" feeling, but the story didn't captivate, until it captivated. In the end I was heartbroken, but the development to take me there earns it only ☕☕☕.  It feels very rushed in the end, and I understand the urgency of war once the war has begun, but it read like two separate novels for me: a very long development of plot, characterization, and setting, and then a fast-paced war novel. I understand the shift, I just didn't enjoy it. 

Overall, this is a good book, but not something that's going to keep you up at night. Helen Simonson does have another novel entitled Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which as I read the reviews has the same writing style. Maybe something to check out?

I would like to share something by Wilfred Owen though, a poet from who she drew inspiration for the poets' corps in her Army ranks:

Dulce et Decorum Est 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs, 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind. 

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling 
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 

In all my dreams before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Works Cited
"Rye, East Sussex." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Mar. 2017. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Irish Eyes are Smiling

In honor of St. Patrick's Day - a quick blog to honor those from Ireland who wield a mighty pen.

Most Notable Works: A Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest

Most Notable Works: Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, Dubliners

Most Notable Works: Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal


But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Education is not the filling of a pail, but rather the lighting of a fire.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Playwright: Pygmalion, Candida

Most Notable Work: Dracula

Most Notable Work: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (series)

Most Notable Work: Angela's Ashes

Wrote many works of his own, but I mostly know his translation of Beowulf

Oh my - too many to list! An author I've not read, but want to read very much. For more information visit her website:

Most Notable Work: Room but she has published other works:

Considered to be the quintessential "Chick-Lit" author. I reviewed one of her early works (Watermelon), but haven't had the chance to read many more. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

I loved this book. Complete page-turner for me. I read so many conflicting reviews before I opened it, I was worried it wouldn't be a thriller as advertised. But, I'm so glad I was wrong. Are there some plot holes - maybe - but I don't spend my time exploiting the wide world of kidnapping either so maybe I missed them out of lack of experience (seems to be the biggest complaint in other reviews which makes me wonder just what they are doing with their spare time?).

The Couple Next Door is a mystery/thriller novel by Shari Lepena. Anne and Marco are just going to a party next door. They had a baby-sitter lined up, but due to a family emergency, she cancels at the last minute. It's too late to get another sitter and Anne has really been struggling with postpartum depression; Marco just wants her to have a nice evening. And so it goes. The couple decides (chapter one here nothing away) to attend the shindig next door and take the baby monitor, but not the baby. Their daughter Cora is asleep, she's barely six-months so she doesn't do a lot at this point. They place her lovingly in her crib and are off to the birthday dinner. They will check on her every thirty minutes - Anne will still do all her timed feedings - they share a wall with the other home as they live in "row" style housing - what could possibly go wrong? So. Much. Goes. Wrong.

Of course, I can't tell you the nitty-gritty of it all, but I will say it has a few surprises here and there. Lapena does an excellent job leading the reader down one path only to have you doubting what you thought you knew in the next chapter. Which is the mark of a good thriller.

I easily give this book a solid ☕☕☕☕☕ and would recommend it as a must read. Not quite as "insane" at Gone Girl, but definitely enough thrill to keep me guessing.

Now - for the plot. I feel I would be remiss if I didn't say this. What kind of moron leaves their six-month old baby at home alone to attend a dinner party?!?!?!? As a parent, I must question everyone involved in this choice. Whew - I feel better now.

For more information about Shari Lapena, visit her website at
where you can read an excerpt of her book.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Hey there Downton Abbey fans - Julian Fellowes is back with a new drama. Released in an app (a new ground for Fellowes) as an episodic novel in the style of Dickens of a former time, the novel follows the story of two families: the Ballasis family of the Aristocracy and the Trenchards of the upper working class.

Secrets abound between the two families as mostly the women work their magic in how to deal with the possible scandal of it all. Starting with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, an untoward romance, a possible sham of a wedding, a ruined reputation, and a child out of wedlock set the stage for veiled upperclass mystery spanning twenty-five years of both households. Servants gossip, ladies maids divulge, and slighted nephews seek to destroy out of jealousy. Belgravia has all the elements of the elitist upper class and its power pit against the desire to inherit such wealth.  Timeless emotions that spurn us all..."ambition, envy, rage, greed, kindness, selflessness..." run high in the ongoing plot to find out who really earns their keep, and their coveted title.

I did not read this in episodes from the app (found here - click!) but rather in novel format. The writing is superb and the historic details add the feel of time travel for the modern-day reader. As an avid watcher of Downton Abbey, it was easy for me to immerse myself in the world created in Belgravia, a suburb of homes in West London outside the city of Westminster that still exists today. I can't quite call this a #pageturner, but the story does move forward in a fairly brisk pace. I found myself talking to some characters, and not in a nice tone of voice, on more than one occasion. Scandal brings out the worst in us all it seems.

But only ☕☕☕ from me. While it has a Downton Abbey feel, it did not hold my attention like I had hoped. The characters were a little whiney and somewhat predictable. I saw the ending coming half-way through the book, and while that's okay, it did make the story a bit lackluster for me. I think there were so many twists and turns in Fellowes known work (to me) that I wanted more of that level of drama. This book was good - no doubt about it - but I could have put it down without knowing the ending. However, it was so well written, I wanted to finish it for that purpose alone. It's an easy read, not too much "thinking" involved, and sometimes that's just what a reader needs; a good, solid story and Belgravia delivers on that front. I think a mini-series would do the work more justice, and maybe that's Fellowes true strength - the screenplay, seeing the characters come to life in real time.

Maybe coming off of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald tainted my reading a bit - hard to top a novel like that. So take this review with a grain of salt. Belgravia is good historical fiction - it is.

What's next in the pile?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

The name Fitzgerald is synonymous with The Great Gatsby. As a high school English teacher, I am no stranger to the nuances of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his "roaring twenties" lifestyle, to include his vivacious wife Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. What I'd never really considered, until now, was what it might be like to be married to a man like Scott. And while Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a fictional account of their life from Zelda's point of view, it paints a harrowing journey of living with a literary mind.

Raised in deep south Alabama, Zelda Sayre was quite always the life of the party. Doing her part to support the war efforts, and by saying this I mean dances and hidden drinks and kissing by the light of the moon, her ebullient and alluring personality captured the attention of a young F. Scott Fitzgerald. At the time, he was serving his duty in the armed forces, but the decision of Armistice prevented him from ever seeing actual combat. Married far too young and far too soon before Scott's personality infiltrated the recesses of Zelda's life, an adventure begins - sometimes journeying to the top of Olympus, but more often plummeting into the river Styx.

Their tale is the height of the Jazz Age. The parties, the lifestyle, the drinking (despite prohibition) and the downfall hits them harder than The Great Depression. F. Scott Fitzgerald makes a name for himself, but this novel explores Zelda in all her glorious, glamorous, and complicated mess.

Fowler's writing is flawless - Zelda's first person narrative leapt off the pages at me. I could not put this book down and found myself rereading sentences with the same intense passion that I've read F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing. She can and does a phrase worthy of literary merit and praise. I felt as if Zelda was talking directly to me and my heart broke for her in ways I cannot explain. Fowler provoked anger in me at the boy-wonder of a husband that destroyed Zelda's sparkling persona, and internalizing that anger caused me to despise not only Scott, but his novels (I'm over this - still love Gatsby - but there were moments). After reading this, I see so much more in Fitzgerald's writing than before, particularly knowing that much of his fodder came from her. I know she was a victim of the "times" - but his abuse of her ideas hurts my soul. She is Daisy or Rosalind - her life became the backdrop of which he wrote his novels, and his corruption of her spirit leaves a black hole in me, as much as it clearly did in her. The afterward discusses the research of the Fitzgerald's lives, and for me I'm cleary #teamzelda.

You can purchase from Amazon The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald for a fairly steep price right now (it would not be the publishing industry if they couldn't make a buck off something). But, this collection of work establishes her as what she was all along - a true artist in not only the performing world, but the literary world. She is a member of the Lost Generation and one worthy of notice and praise. May she earn posthumously the credit she did not receive in her life. I know I will be changing my approach to teaching Fitzgerald, with Zelda taking center stage. She was his muse and had it not been for her, I'm not sure works like Gatsby would even exist.

This novel is a must read - it's an eye opening adventure based on real events. A resounding and full ☕☕☕☕☕ - this book will haunt me for quite some time.

This is Therese Anne Fowler's first novel, but I'm sure we can expect more great writing from her. To learn more about the author, visit her website at:

Side note: There's a lot about Hemingway in this and the sordid relationship with F. Scott that has seen much speculation over the years. I've never liked Hemingway - he's an ass and I thought so before, during, and after reading this book. Sorry for this little random rant, but just felt the need to get in a dig on ol' Ernest.