Books I’ve Read This Week: Vacation Reading

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 25: Vacation Reading  I was on vacation this past week and beach days naturally require beach reads! I like to read (or listen to) vintage historical fiction on vacation and find books at local book sales to add to my collection. Here are this week’s reviews:

#169 of 365 Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Kay Penman

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: June 30, 2018

Review: The second novel in Sharon Kay Penman’s medieval mystery series. I prefer Penman’s longer novels based on historical figures, especially the Welsh trilogy, but her medieval mysteries are enjoyable to read and make good use of the 12th century English setting. In the first novel, The Queen’s Man, written documents emerged as clues, creating complications in a society with widespread illiteracy. In Cruel as the Grave, switching language back and forth from Norman French (the language of the court) to English (the language of ordinary people) becomes a means of preventing conversations from being understood and overheard.

Justin de Quincy’s role as Eleanor of Aquitaine’s secret agent is overshadowed in Cruel as the Grave (except when he is sneaking into Windsor Castle to deliver clandestine messages) by his involvement in a tragic murder mystery involving prosperous merchant families and a Welsh peddler’s daughter. The mystery unfolds step by step until the final pages but the conclusion is not entirely surprising. Just the same, I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

#170 of 365 My Enemy the Queen by Victoria Holt

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at a second hand book sale

Dates Read: July 1-2, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Review: The historical novels of Jean Plaidy (another one of her pen names was Victoria Holt) are always enjoyable vacation reads, informed by primary sources and filled with period details, engaging dialogue and memorable characters. My Enemy the Queen examines the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her Boleyn cousin Lettice Knollys as they were both attracted to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. None of the major characters are especially likable – Robert Dudley is portrayed as charismatic but dangerous, Elizabeth I is vain and self centered and Lettice is impulsive and governed by her passions. The novel is nevertheless a page turner and especially enjoyable for readers who have also read Margaret George’s recent novel about Elizabeth and Lettice.

#171 of 365 La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Date Read: July 3, 2018

Review: I love Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and enjoy his Scottish novels but I did not find his foray into historical fiction, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, to be as compelling as his other books. There are some interesting philosophical passages about the Second World War and a nice message about daily life and small pleasures continuing to take place in difficult times but there was little of the subtle humor that appears in other McCall Smith novels.

The characters also failed to come to life and seemed similar to those in other McCall Smith novels. La contemplates the meaning of education and her career prospects as a woman, similar to the heroine of The Forever Girl, and her husband is a wine merchant, one of the short lived career ambitions of Bruce from the 44 Scotland Street series. A breezy read but not as good as McCall Smith’s other novels.

#172 of 365 Poland by James A. Michener

Genre: Historical Novel

Acquired: Borrowed from my parents

Format: Hardcover, 556 pages

Dates Read: July 4-7, 2018

Review: An epic historical novel that encompasses Poland as the battleground of Europe from the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century to the Soviet backed Polish People’s Republic in the 20th century. Michener includes aspects of Polish culture including pierogies and the mazurka as well as the horsemanship of the landed elites. Michener places three fictional families at the centre of historical events: the aristocratic Lubonskis, the petty gentry Bukowskis and the peasant Buks.

In the early chapters, the different generations of each family remain relatively unchanged but the characters come into focus as distinct individuals in the late 19th century as the Buks discover an opportunity to become small landowners themselves then all of the families experience the horrors of the Second World War. I disagreed with a few of the narrator’s statements, including an exceptionally negative assessment of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, but otherwise enjoyed the novel.

#173 of 365 The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, read by Meryl Streep

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 5, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: A beautiful short historical novel from the perspective of Mary during the early years of Christianity. Toibin imagines Mary as an elderly woman reminiscing about her son and frustrating the writers of the Gospels with her complicated perspective on her son’s miracles and crucifixion. The audiobook is a stellar performance by Meryl Streep, which presents the novel as an extended monologue by a revered elder who is eager to unravel her own story from the emerging New Testament. Highly recommended.

#174 of 365 The Iliad: The Fitzgerald Translation by Dan Stevens

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 59 minutes

Date Listened: July 6-7, 2018

Review: I have read The Odyssey on a few occasions but this is the first time I have experienced The Iliad from start to finish. The Iliad is filled with impressive speeches and vivid battle scenes. The conversations between Hector and his wife Andromache are quite touching. Of the two works attributed to the Homer, however, I prefer The Odyssey as Odysseus has a wide variety of adventures on his journey home while the battle scenes at the Siege of Troy, and the cycle of feasting and fighting, grow repetitive over the course of The Iliad.

As epic poetry, The Iliad suits the audiobook format. Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey) reads with enthusiasm but a little too quickly as the connections between the characters are important to the story and it is important that listeners do not miss them. The Robert Fitzgerald translation is excellent and brings the story to life.

#175 of 365 Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at the Port Elgin Flea Market

Date Read: July 7, 2018

Format: Paperback, 645 pages

Review: An absorbing beach read. Beatrice Lacey, an eighteenth century gentlewoman who resembles Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and Ashton from John Jakes’ North and South, is obsessed with controlling her family’s Wideacre estate and ruins the lives of everyone in the novel, including herself, in order to do so. The plot is completely over the top but Gregory has written the novel as a page turner, with a looming threat just beyond the boundaries of the estate that maintains the momentum of the story to the very end. There are some plotlines specific to the 18th century, such as the enclosure of common lands on landed estates, but otherwise, this is a historical novel that could have been set in a variety of time periods as the focus is on the scandalous behaviour at Wideacre rather than the wider world.

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