Tag Archives: four stars

19, 20, 21: Thursday Next, Destined, and Jane Austen Education

19. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

*****

fforde-lost_in_a_good_book

I truly think that there is no more brilliant writer working today than Jasper Fforde when it comes to the sheer magic, creativity and genius of building alternate worlds and dimensions and realities. (If that’s not high praise, tell me higher and I’ll use it.) That being said, I still haven’t made it all the way through the Thursday Next series (this is book #2 and this was the first time I’d read it). I think probably it’s because I know there is only so much Thursday Next in the world and I want to savor it all, and have the joy of anticipation in looking forward to reading more.

For those who don’t know about Thursday Next, she is a detective working for the SpecOps police force in an alternate dimension-type universe where there are such things as Literary Police, the Crimean War is still going strong (well, at the time of the books, which take place in the mid-1980s of this particular universe), people go to Rocky Horror Picture Show-type productions of Shakespeare plays (audience participation galore), and rogue Baconians go door-to-door to try and convince people that Francis Bacon was the REAL author of Shakespeare’s plays. Time travel is possible (there’s a whole police division called the Chronoguard) and with the right inventions you can actually step into the printed word and meet literary characters. This ability comes into play in this book as Thursday joins JurisFiction, the intra-literary police force (her mentor is Miss Havisham, yes that one), and starts learning the ropes to solve literary crimes.

To say this book and this series was completely lovely and brilliant and amazing just doesn’t quite cover it. Trust me, just start reading the Thursday Next books for yourself if you haven’t already done so (Book One is The Eyre Affair). Five stars.

 

20. Destined, by Aprilynne Pike

*****

destined2

I started reading Aprilynne Pike’s Wings series last year, just as book three came out, in the mistaken belief that it was a trilogy and I wouldn’t have to wait months for the resolution of any evil cliff-hangers. Hah. It became clear to me about 5 pages from the end when things reeeeeeeaaaaalllly weren’t winding up fast enough that I’d been mistaken and yes, book three ended on one of the most evil cliffhangers I’ve seen since Catching Fire.

I’ve talked elsewhere about my feelings on Twilight, but I’ll sum up here by saying that, yes, I do love the Twilight books like I love cotton candy: it’s sweet, it’s fluffy, it reminds you of dates at the amusement park with your high school crush, and it’s not something you should eat all the time or you’ll get sick. Also, the main character bugged the crap out of me until book four when she finally became interesting to herself and therefore to me.

So when I say that the Wings series is kind of what Twilight would have been like if the main character were strong and assertive and solved problems and could take care of herself and had other things going on in her life besides an all-consuming love for a boy, that’s a compliment. Laurel is everything I wished Bella was and more. The mythology that Pike has created for this world is fascinating, the prose is fluid and clear, and yes, the boys in the inevitable YA love triangle are both amazing. (Although I really wish I could figure out how to pronounce “Tamani.”)

So much for the series as a whole. Destined was the best capstone to a series that I’ve read in a long, long time. I can’t imagine a more perfect way for this story to wrap up. The action of the book takes place mostly in a 24-hour period immediately following the evil cliffhanger from book 3 but never feels drawn-out or clunky; you’re turning pages as fast as possible to see what happens and how on earth can they possibly get out of this horrible mess? But everything works out just as it should. Nothing feels forced or contrived; nor does it feel like Pike wimped out or pulled any punches. And the epilogue, oh my goodness. I may cry gratuitously at movies and Taylor Swift songs (that’s a whole ‘nother story), but it takes a lot for a book to make me cry. So when I say that I cried at the epilogue—not ugly Bridge to Terebithia tears or wrenching middle-of-Hunger-Games tears, but cathartic tears and those tears you get when everything is just filled with a sense of rightness—that’s high praise.

Even if you think you’re sick of the whole YA paranormal romance type of series, I suggest you check out the Wings books. They’re a prime example of the genre done right. I’m looking forward to finding out what else Pike has up her sleeve in her career; this series is a most auspicious beginning. Five stars.

 

21. A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz

****

images

 

I really enjoyed seeing Jane Austen from the perspective of a male grad student skeptic and how he came to learn to love Austen, as well as learning life lessons from her books. His takeaway lessons from the novels were not the same as mine in a lot of cases (and a few points he brought up I don’t think I quite agree with), but in some other cases he put something so brilliantly that it was what I hadn’t realized I’d been thinking all along. His comparison between the writing voices of Austen and Joyce, for example, nailed exactly what I’ve thought about the two styles for quite some time.

Deresiewicz’s writing style is friendly and comfortable but also very smart, and I thought the personal anecdotes and relations he made between his life and how he came to Austen were quite interesting. I don’t know if this book will convert any non-believers (which seems to be at least part of the point he’s writing from), but it’s worth picking up if you are even a casual appreciator of Jane Austen. Four stars.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Skipping around: Three Mary Russell books (Yo52B #18, 28 and 31)

I’m skipping around a bit here with the chronology of my reviews, because I wanted to get all of my gushing out in one spot. These three books are all part of the same series. (Also, side note, aren’t those covers just gorgeous? I love both styles so much.)

Have I mentioned Mary Russell here before? If I haven’t, I apologize, as if you know me in real life and I’ve spoken to you at all in the past two years there’s a 90% chance I’ve recommended the Mary Russell books to you in terms so strong that you probably backed away slowly, smiling and nodding and looking for something to defend yourself with in case my not-so-latent maniacal tendencies started manifesting themselves in a more sinister way than book recommendations.

Ahem. Mary Russell is one of my current favorite literary characters. Laurie R. King has created an absolutely fantastic series about this British-American Jewish feminist Oxford scholar in the 1910’s and 1920’s who, at the age of 15, meets up with a retired Sherlock Holmes and becomes his protegee and partner. The books are meticulously researched and just sparkle with wit and intelligence. King’s Holmes is his own character but still true to the original vision of Conan Doyle (although this Holmes is rather testy about any references to Conan Doyle; he dislikes the way the latter man sullied his name by association, especially once Conan Doyle turned more to mysticism and fairy stories).

But Mary Russell, from whose viewpoint the stories are told, more than holds her own with Sherlock Holmes without becoming unrealistically superior to him. He still is able to teach and mentor her without making her appear weak. She is a worthy partner for him in every way, and challenges his mind and opinions more than he has been used to.

I’ve read three of these books this year. The Game is book 7. Later on in the year my book club read book 1, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and I also read book 8, Locked Rooms.

18. The Game, by Laurie R. King

****

In The Game, Holmes and Russell make their way to India at the request of Mycroft Holmes in order to investigate the disappearance of an intelligence officer by the name of Kimball O’Hara, better known as the titular character of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. (One of the delightful things about the Holmes/Russell universe is that many purportedly fictional characters, such as Holmes himself, are actually real and pop up at interesting times.) I loved the atmosphere of this book, which felt simultaneously menacing and full of color and spices. There were a few unexpected but satisfying twists, along with a few threads of a mystery to be picked up in the next book. All in all a solid book and great fun to read, but not quite equal to the top books in the canon (books 5 and 6, O Jerusalem and Justice Hall, were two sides of the same coin and absolute masterpieces. They were two of the top three best books I read in 2011). Four stars.

28. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

*****

It was delightful to re-read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice a few weeks later with the benefit of hindsight (or is it foresight when you know what’s coming in the next few books? Anyway, I enjoyed it, whatever it was) and seeing how later events in the series were foreshadowed as well as seeing the clues to the answer to the mystery as they popped up in the book. It re-confirmed my conviction that Laurie R. King is a master of storytelling, whose writing style is like weaving a huge epic tapestry: everything is connected, somehow, and all the disparate threads come together to make an astonishing whole. (Yes, I have a serious author crush going on here.) Five stars.

31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

*****

I went into Locked Rooms not expecting too much, as I’d heard that it was four shorter stories rather than one complete novel. I was delighted to find that I was mistaken. The book is divided into four parts, yes, but that’s because two of the parts are actually told using third-person narration with Holmes himself serving as the viewpoint character for the first time in the series, with the other two parts in the accustomed first-person narration of Mary Russell. This may sound like it shouldn’t work, but oh, believe me, it does, and is done for very good and sufficient reasons. Far from being disappointed in this book, the ultimate result took my breath away. It stands solidly with books 5 and 6 at the top of the series. This book sees Russell and Holmes arriving in San Francisco to tie up the affairs of Mary’s parents’ estate, and a mystery from her childhood rises up to confront them. I can’t think of anything else to say that won’t give away spoilers or just devolve into garbled author-crush gushing. But seriously. Wow. Five stars and mad applause for Laurie R. King. (And yes, this book is a serious contender for the final six-star best book of the year award.)

Seriously, if you haven’t started reading this series, do yourself a favor and pick up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. You should read all of them in order so you can properly appreciate the sequence and build of events and facts, and all of them, even the weakest (looking at you, book 3), are solidly on the Books You’ll Be Glad You Read list.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Year of 52 Books #12: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

****

Not too much to say about this one, since everyone has read it or seen the movie and I have little to add.

I re-read this book in preparation for the movie, as it had been about two years since the first time I’d read it. I was impressed again by the urgency of the writing, how the pace keeps moving the reader along, as if by staying in one spot too long the reader, too, will get attacked by giant flying fireballs. As before, I cried for Rue (even though I cry at the drop of the hat where movies are concerned—it’s ridiculous, really—it takes a lot for a book to make me cry, so this is fairly high praise). Katniss frustrates me some of the time because it seems like she switches back and forth very quickly at times from competent kick-ace huntress to “wait, what, you actually like like me?” and the contrast seems choppy and uncharacteristic. But that’s probably just me. All in all I still really liked it. I’m looking forward to getting a chance to unpack my boxes of books and re-read the rest of the trilogy. Four stars.

If you’ll indulge my other nerdy obsession, I would like to take a moment here and move away from books to comment briefly on the movie. I thought it was well done—the visuals (when they weren’t obscured by shaky cam) were spot-on; the actors were well-cast, and I loved the adaptation choices they made to help move the story out of Katniss’ head and onto the screen by showing the games control room and the commentary by Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith (see, e.g., the tracker jacker scene). That last bit may have to do with my personal opinion that anything which introduces more Stanley Tucci into a situation is a good thing, though.

I had issues with the overuse of the shaky cam. To clarify, I have absolutely no complaints with the use of shaky cam during the actual games portion of the movie. It lends a good sense of realism to the situation, fits with the emotion of the scene, and also keeps me from having to see too many gory details (and, let’s be honest, kept it a PG-13 rather than an R so more of the books’ target audience could see the movie). HOWEVER. There is no need whatsoever to use the shaky cam while showing opening expository shots of miners walking home from work. If you’re giving your audience a miner-induced headache from immediate shaky cam two minutes into the movie, you’ve got a problem.

Shaky cam aside, though, I liked the movie, but was slightly disappointed in it. It seemed like with all the positives they had going for it—the right cast, right director, right adaptation, right visuals, etc.—they still somehow missed giving it that elusive element called “heart.” I enjoyed the film but it rang a little bit hollow for me. I never truly connected with it. I don’t think I would have sponsored any of the Tributes except possibly Rue, and even then I didn’t cry half so hard for her in the movie as I did in the book. And if you know how ridiculous my crying-at-movies level has gotten, that’s the best example I can give. I enjoyed the movie, but it didn’t grab me by the shoulders and make me care like the book did.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Year of 52 Books #8: The Woman in White

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

****

This was a re-read for my book club, but it’s a book I love. The first time I read this book, I was reading it online on Project Gutenberg during my breaks at work. My husband and I were getting ready to move around this same time, and the move date (when we’d be without internet for a couple of days) coincided with my reaching the part where Things Start to Get Really Good. I was also going to be taking a couple of days off work for both the move and my little sister’s wedding (yeah, I know, we have *great* timing), and I could not bear the thought of waiting that long to find out what happened, so I ended up taking time out from packing to run to three bookstores to find a copy because the first two were out.

And I’m glad I did. I think this was my fifth read of this book (yeah, I re-read a lot. I’ll discuss that in another post sometime) and the first time reading it with the specific plan of discussing it with other people, so it was fun to see what themes I picked up on this time that I had missed before or forgotten about.

This book is an early mystery novel of sorts, involving a strange woman in white, two half-sisters, a drawing teacher, a brutish baronet, an invalid uncle, assorted old ladies and a sinister count. Add mistaken identities, lunatic asylums, trained white mice, kidnapping, doomed love, sea voyages, attempted murder, arson, forgery, slander, scandal, and opera-loving Italians of all shapes and sizes to the mix and you have the makings of 400-ish pages of a whole lot of fun.

What can I say? I can’t really sum up the plot of this book succinctly, partly because Collins is anything but succinct. It’s told as a series of first-person narratives, ostensibly so that no part of the story is given second- or third-hand; each part of the story is related by an individual who was actually there to see it or take part. This is great but it means that when Walter is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of extraneous matter about how wonderful and beautiful and perfect Laura is, and when Marian is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of (unconvincing) regrets about how she can’t do anything to save them because she is only a weak woman.

Let me take a break here to say the lady doth protest too much. Wilkie Collins, in Marian Halcombe, appears to have created a character he didn’t quite know what to do with or how to control. She’s smart, she’s sassy, she’s resourceful, she’s basically awesome, but he needed Walter to be in love with Laura instead, you know, for plot reasons, so it feels like he had to keep artificially hobbling Marian to keep her from becoming the main love interest. To do this he specifies that she is ugly (yes, he even goes so far as to give her a bit of a mustache) and keeps having her remind us all that she is only a woman, and what can women do? A heck of a lot, Marian, as you keep showing at every turn. Seriously, Laura’s great and all, but you’re the heroine of this story in my book and only the VILLAIN has the sense to see it. Yeah, you read that right, the hero is in love with bland and actually-helpless and feminine to the core Laura, while the villain has the good sense to fall madly in love with spunky Marian.  (Actually, in the not-really-faithful-at-all 1930’s movie adaptation, the filmmakers DID make Marian the main love interest, kind of the same way that people can’t help but tinker with Fanny Price. This was possible because in the movie Marian did not have a mustache.)

Wilkie, your character was too good for you, and I hope you realize it. (I think you do, because you do have Walter, in his brief pauses between rhapsodizing on Laura’s perfections, mention how amazing a person and what a staunch ally and good friend Marian is. And hey, she’s the one he takes into his confidence when plotting! Seriously, the only thing keeping this woman from taking over the show is that tacked-on mustache. In my mind I see it kind of like a Mr. Potato Head accessory; just shoved on there as an afterthought once the author realized that he’d painted himself into the corner where his reader was naturally going to be rooting for the hero to get with the wrong girl.)

But even with these flaws, I still really enjoy this book. It’s long; it’s an investment and fun to curl up with knowing that you’ll be taking a long journey together. And the good news is that (other than the aforementioned rhapsodizing and self-deprecation from our respective main characters), there isn’t much wasted space (okay, okay, so a few of the landscape descriptions could also have been dropped). What I mean is, all the PLOT elements come back together; even what seem like throw-away bits end up being important to the story later.

If you can get past some Victorian stereotypes, can tolerate unnecessary facial hair, and like fun mystery-type stories, I recommend The Woman in White. It’s worth it, I promise. (Seriously. Just wait till you meet Fosco. He must be seen to be believed.) Four stars.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Year of 52 Books #7: Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale

****

 

Let me just get this out of the way to begin with: My friend Tracy (name changed) would probably hate this book.

Let me back up a bit.

Shannon Hale’s Austenland* is one of my go-to favorites for frothy and sweet but not stupid reading. I love Jane Austen, I love Shannon Hale, I love Colin Firth, I love romance and happy endings. I think Austenland was the first book I actually bought for my Kindle (mostly I just loaded up on freebies); I loved it enough to want to buy it again to have easy access to it all the time. It’s basically a one-long-sitting read and cheers me up every time. I even had my book club read it after we’d finished all the Jane Austen books, and it was enjoyed, even if not all of them loved it like I do.

Fast forward a few months from that book club meeting. I’m sitting at work one afternoon with my friend K, who is also in the book club, and our friend Tracy walks in. Without preamble, she declares to the room, “Have you ever read Austenland? Don’t. Worst book ever.”

This isn’t the only book we emphatically disagree on. She loves Eragon. She hates Jane Eyre. I think her main complaint with Austenland is that it *SPOILER ALERT* ended happily. (I sometimes wonder if she also hates puppies and sunshine. Not really. And I love her dearly. But that Jane Eyre thing makes me worry sometimes.)

Anyway. Midnight in Austenland is the, well, not really sequel, but follow-up to Austenland. It takes place in the same setting—a fictional resort in England where rich women pay fabulous amounts of money to have an immersive Jane Austen vacation experience, complete with handsome actors in breeches whose job is to make the guests feel enchanting—but most of the characters (with a few sparkling exceptions) are different. While Austenland took its inspiration more from Pride and Prejudice, with healthy doses of Persuasion and Mansfield Park thrown in, Midnight is most closely allied with Northanger Abbey. It’s basically Shannon Hale’s nod to the Gothic novel and is more of a mystery novel than a romance, although it also *SPOILER ALERT* ends happily. (Sorry, Tracy.)

This book features Charlotte, a successful entrepreneur who discovered Jane Austen’s books after her husband left her for a woman named Justice. (Yes, really.) Her two children are spending a few weeks with their father during the summer and she decides to take her first vacation in years. A casual mention of Jane Austen to her travel agent ends up with Charlotte booking a two-week stay at Pembrook Park. Once there, she begins to lose track of what is real and what is only make-believe, and she must decide whether she actually has uncovered a sinister mystery or if it is only part of the entertainment.

I love Shannon Hale’s voice and the way her books make you feel like a member of a cool little club with the narrator’s sly comments and the inner monologue her characters carry on. She is witty and intelligent and obviously having a whole lot of fun writing these books. But I also enjoy these books because although they are firmly planted in the “just-for-fun” category, they’re actually well written and smart. There’s substance going on; they’re not just cotton candy. They’re well researched and stand on their own rather than being mere derivative fanfic. They’re definitely more frothy than most of her other books, so if you’re coming to these books expecting the beautiful literary prose tone of, say, The Goose Girl, you might be disappointed. But the writing is still excellent and well-crafted and the humor is great, and the characters are ones that you wouldn’t mind curling up and spending an afternoon with.

I’d recommend reading Austenland first, just because I love it and it gives you a bit of perspective on some of the events of Midnight in Austenland, but Midnight can stand on its own quite easily if you haven’t read Austenland (or, you know, if you trust Tracy’s judgment more than mine or if you hate happiness and butterflies). Four stars.

 

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, there are actually many books on which Tracy and I agree; I’d be willing to bet that in most instances trusting her judgment wouldn’t be all that different from trusting mine. 

 

*Brief synopsis of Austenland for those who are interested: Jane Hayes is a thirtysomething with a string of bad relationships and an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth. Compared to Darcy, real men just don’t stack up. When Jane’s great-aunt dies and leaves her an all-expenses-paid vacation to Pembrook Park, a Jane-Austen-themed resort, Jane decides that maybe this will be the best way to kick her Darcy fixation for good.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Year of 52 books #4: Longitude

Confession: I’ve had some crazy scheduling stuff come up recently so while I’m currently reading book #6, I’m a bit behind in my reviews, so I’ll be playing catch-up in the next few days. I finished this book a little over a week ago.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

by Dava Sobel

****

 

My dad loves documentaries, especially of the National Geographic or Nova variety. This may be where a lot of his random trivia knowledge comes from; I know that the things I learned through osmosis while these programs were on in the house for much of my childhood certainly come in handy when it’s Trivial Pursuit time. They also, incidentally, made me look like a huge nerd (yes, even more than normal) one time in eighth grade history class when I happened to be the only student who not only had heard of but also was able to tell about the German Enigma code machine from WWII. I had learned about the enigma machine while sitting on the couch in our family room downstairs, probably working on some counted cross stitch project (my nerdiness factor really isn’t shrinking much here, is it?) as my dad watched a TV program on the code breaker. I think he also used the opportunity to tell me about the decoder rings he had loved in his childhood, but I may just be thinking of A Christmas Story.

Anyway. Most of the documentaries he watched have just kind of blurred together for me, but I do have a specific memory of once again sitting downstairs (only this time I was working on a puzzle, I think of a map of the USA—yeah, I’m never getting rid of the nerd label now) watching a documentary about the search for longitude with my dad. I also remember missing the end of it because I was rather young and my mom made me come upstairs to get ready for bed. So when I saw that the Kindle Daily Deal awhile back (we’ll talk another time about just how much I adore the KDD) was a book called Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, you can bet I 1-clicked the heck out of that deal.

And I loved this book. It’s written as a popular account rather than a history, so while it is still historically accurate and well-researched, it moves along at a great clip, it doesn’t get bogged down in footnotes and it’s exciting and accessible. It almost reads like a novel in some places—you’ve got your problem that is threatening the existence of the kingdom; your plucky hero from somewhere obscure, fighting against all odds to save the day; your villains and antagonists who are bound and determined to throw every obstacle possible into the hero’s way in order to win the glory for themselves; and somehow it all turns out right in the end. Throw in a handful of astronomers and watch-makers and you’ve got Longitude.

Most people don’t realize in our era of GPS and Google Earth that in the early and not-so-early-at-all days of sailing, longitude was a major problem. Captains could determine latitude quite easily from the sun and the equator, but longitude was a different matter all together. Leaving aside the basic fact that people couldn’t agree where the Prime Meridian should be in the first place, even once you started from the prime meridian you had no accurate way to measure your distance from it. This could lead to disaster at sea, from not knowing how close you were to shore, which led to a disastrous shipwreck of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell’s fleet on the Scilly Islands in 1707, causing a loss of 4 ships and 2000 men; or from losing time and supplies backtracking to find your destination, as in the case of Commodore George Anson, whose longitudinal delays in 1741 eventually led to the death by scurvy of more than half of his 500-man crew. These and similar disasters prompted Parliament to establish the Longitude Act in 1714, which formed the Board of Longitude to award a prize worth millions of today’s dollars to the person who came up with (and proved!) an accurate method of determining longitude at sea.

Sobel’s subtitle makes it seem as though this book is mostly focused on English clockmaker John Harrison, who eventually won the prize. However, the book’s scope is a bit wider than the subtitle lets on, and Harrison’s story is only one of the threads of the narrative. Sobel also chronicles several failed attempts, some of which are hilariously bad (one involving pouring “sympathy powder” on a wounded dog’s tail at a set time everyday is particularly great, as is the one that proposed to anchor ships at various intervals throughout the ocean to set off fireworks and cannons at set times), and the aftermath of Harrison’s inventions. All in all, this is an excellent and comprehensive-enough view of the longitude problem, and it was fascinating.

I loved Sobel’s writing style, which was clear and succinct but also lyrical. I also have to applaud her choice of chapter epigraphs, especially the nod to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” (and that was the last nail in my nerd coffin. Ah, well). My one complaint is that there were no accompanying pictures of the people or devices described in the book, at least not in my Kindle edition.

If you’re interested in readable history and science (or even if you think you don’t like history or science) and cool inventions and astronomy and unpleasant people with names like Rev. Maskelyne, do yourself a favor and pick up Longitude.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Year of 52 Books #1: Miss Pettigrew

I’ve set a goal to read 52 books this year, and finished the first yesterday. To be fair, it was a very quick read and one I’ve read before (I was re-reading it for my book club). I’ll be posting periodic reviews and updates on this goal as I go along, so here’s the first review, all shiny and exciting and new.

The ratings system is as follows (shamelessly borrowed from Meg’s project, where I will be guest-posting as well):

No Star : I hated it. Do not recommend.
One Star : I didn’t like it, but someone else might.
Two Stars: It was OK. I could take it or leave it.
Three Stars : I liked it. Read it someday.
Four Stars : I loved it. Definitely recommend.
Five Stars : It was extraordinary. I want this on my shelf.
The Elusive Six Stars : Reserved for the Best Book of 2012.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson.

****

This book is absolutely delightful. It reminds me of a big, lavish Fred Astaire musical in terms of both tone and wit. It’s frothy and fun and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Busby Berkeley number popped out from between the pages at any moment. This is the perfect kind of book for a rainy day, when you need a little pick-me-up, or a sunny day, when you need a book that’s in keeping with the weather, or for any kind of day in between. Unless you hate puppies and sunshine and people having fun, you will most likely enjoy this book. (Note: this book does not actually contain puppies.)

Miss Pettigrew is a middle-aged, dowdy, down-on-her-luck, timid, perpetually-seeking-employment spinster of a governess, and the daughter of a clergyman to boot. She begins her day at 9:15 a.m. by going to the employment agency, where she is given word of a possible position. She heads over to the home of Miss Delysia LaFosse, uttering a little prayer before she rings the bell, admitting to God that it’s her last chance, and they both know it.

Little does Miss Pettigrew know that by ringing the doorbell at Five, Onslow Mansions she is heralding the start of one bright, golden, adventurous day. In the glittering world of Miss LaFosse (a decidedly non-clergyman’s-daughter-type actress), Miss Pettigrew is given the chance to act the heroine, save a damsel in distress, reunite young lovers, eat delicious food, play dress-up, incite a night-club fight and even (gasp!) wear make-up and curl her hair. What would her strictly proper, strictly conservative, dearly departed parents say if they could see her now? And what would her new acquaintances do if they knew what she really was—only a lowly governess, and not a very good one at that? And how on earth will she be able to settle down to her dull gray existence after living for this one spectacular day?

I have to say that my favorite thing about this book is the snappy dialogue. It feels just like a rapid-fire comedy from the era of early talkies (and was supposed to have been one. several motion picture studios had their eye on this book, and the rights had even been acquired, but for one reason or another the project kept getting delayed. The film version wasn’t made and released until 2008, with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. I highly recommend the movie, too, although it doesn’t follow the book exactly. But how could you resist Lee Pace or Ciaran Hinds? That’s right. You couldn’t). My favorite passage involves this exchange between Miss Pettigrew, Miss LaFosse, and one of Miss LaFosse’s several suitors, regarding another of her suitors:

“What does he remind you of?” [asked Michael.]

“Ice-cream,” said Miss Pettigrew.

“What?” said Michael. His face lit with joy.

“Woman,” he cried in delight, “your acumen is marvellous. I could only think of him singing mushy songs to mushy señoritas in mushy films.”

[. . .]

“Ha!” said Michael triumphantly. “Caldarelli’s ice-cream. She prefers the son of an ice-cream vendor to me.”

“How dare you?” cried Miss LaFosse indignantly. “You know Nick’s father never sold ice-cream in his life. And your father sold fish.”

“Fish!”

Michael jumped to his feet. He exploded into oratory. He strode up and down the room. Miss Pettigrew cast nervous eyes on chairs and ornaments.

“You compare fish . . . with ice-cream,” cried Michael. “Fish has phosphorous. Fish feeds the brain. Fish is nutritious. Fish is body-building. Fish has vitamins. Fish has cod-liver oil. Fish makes bonny babies bigger and better. Men give their lives for fish. Women weep. The harbour bar moans. You compare fish . . . with ice-cream. And look me in the face.”

Love it!

I give this book four stars, because it’s one that always cheers me up, that I bought right after the first time I read it, and that is clever and well-written to boot. (I should mention in fairness that since it was written in the 1920s there are a few moments that definitely are not PC, but if you can get past those it’s an absolutely lovely read.)

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews