Thursday, August 14, 2014

Late summer 2014 reading list

This Book Nook post has something for everyone. A biography of England's King Edward VII (one of the best biographies I have ever read). An interesting history of life at the Hotel Ritz in Paris leading up to and during the Second World War. Several clever mysteries. A smattering of romance. And two books about food/food trends.

I also noted two books that I had extremely high hopes for, which dashed them just over halfway through -- and I have still not forgiven the authors. Both of them received rave reviews, and one of them is up for a prestigious book award. So what do I know? (Plenty. But clearly I am not on the same page as the people who nominate books for awards.)

As per usual, I've divided the books into Fiction and Nonfiction and listed them alphabetically. I have also provided a brief description/summary of each title. If you want to know more about a book, Google the title -- or go to Amazon or GoodReads to read more in-depth descriptions and reviews. (To see previous book recommendations, click on the Book Nook label at the end of the blog post or the Book Recommendations link to the right.)


The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick. Fans of Eleanor of Aquitaine and tales of medieval France (and England) will enjoy this story of Eleanor (or Alienor as she was then known) of Aquitaine's early years as ruler of Aquitaine and France. The first book in a trilogy, The Summer Queen tells of Alienor's young marriage (at 13) to Louis VII of France in 1137, how it came to be annulled 15 years later, and her marriage to the 19-year-old Henry, Duke of Normandy, who became King of England at 20 (or 21). Well researched and well written, I found it a good, quick read and am looking forward to the next book in the series, The Winter Crown, about Alienor's life in England, which is scheduled to be published this fall.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. A whodunnit -- written by a twentysomething native French speaker, which takes place in New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire -- that keeps you guessing until the very end. (I loved it, but many book reviewers here in the States were not as crazy about it as I was, or the millions of Europeans who made the book a smash hit in France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, where the author is from.)

Imagine Nabokov's Lolita if Agatha Christie or Louise Penny had written it as a murder mystery.

The novel tells the story of one Marcus Goldman, a twentysomething writer whose first novel was a smashing success but now has writer's block -- and his publisher is about to sue his ass if he doesn't produce a new manuscript pronto. So Goldman turns to his mentor and former college professor, Harry Quebert, for guidance, visiting Harry at his home in a small beachside town in New Hampshire.

Shortly after arriving, however, Goldman learns of his mentor's long ago affair with a 15-year-old girl, who disappeared 33 years before. When the girl's bones are then found, along with the original manuscript of Quebert's prize-winning book that launched his career, in Quebert's yard, Quebert's affair is exposed and he is arrested for murder. With the world screaming for Quebert's head, and his publisher screaming for a manuscript, Goldman returns to New Hampshire to help Harry and search for the truth, launching his own investigation in the Harry Quebert affair -- and then writing about it. But nothing, it turns out, is as it seems.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). Reading The Silkworm reminded me of those classic Raymond Chandler whodunnits, updated for the Twenty-First Century. Instead of Philip Marlowe, however, we have Cormoran Strike, an Afghanistan war vet turned private investigator/detective who lives and works in London (and is aided by his very attractive, about-to-be married assistant, Robin). The case of the silkworm involves a second-rate author, who goes missing after penning a scathing, thinly disguised book about many people he knows in the publishing world. His long-suffering, rather odd wife wants him found. But when the author is discovered murdered in a grizzly fashion, everyone, it seems, is a suspect. Fast-paced and well-written, The Silkworm is in the noir fiction tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger. A novel of intrigue set mainly in 1385 London, Chaucer's England, featuring Geoffrey Chaucer and many other prominent historical characters of the time. The "burnable book" in question is a book prophesying the deaths of the kings of England, including the death of England's new young king Richard II. Many want to get their hands on the book, for different reasons, but all who seek or possess it seem to die or suffer. It is up to John Gower, a poet and trader of information, to find the truth -- and the book.Good historical, or medieval, mystery.

Three Weeks with Lady X by Eloisa James. As many of you know, romance novels are my guilty pleasure. And I typically don't feature them on these book posts because I am a bit embarrassed. But it's summer, and I love Eloisa James, who, ahem, has a BA from Harvard, an M.Phil. from Oxford University, a Ph.D. from Yale and is an English professor, in addition to being a best-selling, award-winning writer of romance novels. (Feeling a bit intimidated? I know I am.)

Three Weeks with Lady X is her latest novel, and, I think, one of her best. I could give you a brief description of the plot, but is that really necessary? (Oh if I must. Thorn Dautry, rich, handsome bastard son of a duke needs a wife. So he sets his sights on a proper young lady and hires Lady Xenobia India, a society decorator, who happens to be young, beautiful, and headstrong, to make his new abode, and himself, presentable in just three weeks. Of course, this being a romance novel, things don't go exactly as planned and... passions are ignited.) Anyway, if romance novels are your guilty pleasure, too, pick up Three Weeks with Lady X. You won't be disappointed.

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano. I am not a big fan of short story collections. Not sure why. I think it's because I find them uneven and unsatisfying. But something about The Other Language intrigued me enough to check it out. Maybe because it is written by an Italian, and most of the stories are set outside the United States, in Italy, India, and Africa. And I love books set in other places, told from a non-American point of view.

In any case, while the stories in The Other Language are all a bit (or more) sad and depressing -- tales of love (or lust) and loss -- they are beautifully and movingly told (the word poignant keeps springing to mind). I also found them all too relatable and  admired the author's ability to capture moments in relationships.

Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell. A fictionalized account of the heyday of English soprano Anna Storace, an opera singer who achieved fame at 16 and went on to become Mozart's muse. Written by an American opera singer, Vienna Nocturne takes readers on an tour of some of late Eighteenth Century Europe's great opera houses (in England, Italy, and Vienna) and stars -- and makes you feel as though you had box seats. I am not a fan of opera, yet I enjoyed this well written, well researched book.

The House at Tyneford by Naomi Solomons. I keep swearing off books about World War II and events leading up to the Second World War, especially books about the cruel treatment, deportation, torture, and massacre of Jews. (Too hard/depressing for me to read.) And yet they somehow keep finding their way into my book bag. That said, I fell in love with this novel of a 19-year-old Viennese Jewish girl whose family sends her to England to escape the coming war and the new family she finds there. A tale of love and loss and war, beautifully told.


The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo. The Nazi occupation of Paris observed from inside the Hotel Ritz, where Nazis, the rich and famous, Allies, and spies for both sides lived and mingled. A work of nonfiction, the book at times reads like a spy novel or pulp fiction and includes plenty of glitz and glamor, as well as a history of the Hotel Ritz and some of its famous occupants and regulars, going back to its opening in 1898.

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley. One of the best biographies I've read -- extremely well researched and very well written. Ridley gives readers a full-blown portrait of Edward VII, aka Albert Edward or Bertie, from his boyhood to his coronation and death, uncovering many previously unknown or forgotten facts about not only Edward but about his role in governing England and the political conflicts of the time (mid to late 1800s through the early 1900s). She also gives us a glimpse into the life of Queen Victoria, his mother, a perfectly horrible sounding woman and mother, and her family, and Bertie's wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark. A fascinating read. Highly recommend, especially if you are an Anglophile.

Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen by David Sax.Warning: Do not read this book unless you have a really good pastrami, or corned beef, or turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with a side of coleslaw, handy. Which, considering there are no great delis anymore, or very few, will be tough to find. So prepare to be hungry.

Save the Deli in short is a love letter to that temple of smoked or cured meats and schmaltz that Jews (and non-Jews) flocked to for centuries. Sax, a Canadian, spent several years traveling the United States, Canada, and Europe in search of the last remaining delis, sampling their wares and writing about what made them great (both the food and the people) and why so many once great delis -- institutions -- closed (mainly in New York, because the rent is so high) and why and how they have managed to survive in other places (namely Los Angeles).

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed up with Fondue by David Sax. Great idea. Inconsistently executed. If you are into food (i.e., a foodie) and/or amused by food trends, this is a must read. Sax discusses a variety of food trends, past and present -- from cupcakes to Chia seeds to food trucks to fondue -- how they arise and how and why they peter out. And he includes many interesting anecdotes and facts about food marketing that people who are into food and/or food trends will find interesting.

That said, throughout the book, I kept getting the feeling that Sax bit off more than he could chew and/or lost interest and was rushing to get the book to his publisher. (As it turned out, his wife had a baby while he was writing this, and I don't doubt he was sleep deprived and distracted much of the time, though shame on his editors for not catching or introducing so many errors and typos and/or not fact checking the manuscript, wrote the former fact checker.)

Books That Really Pissed Me Off

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. Loved the first half, about a dentist looking for meaning in his life -- was laughing out loud and proclaiming what a great little book this was. Hated the second half. WTF Ferris? Was so very, very disappointed. Had a great premise, a great narrative approach, and just went off the rails, or the deep end, totally blowing it for me about halfway through.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I similarly quickly fell in love with this book about a curmudgeonly bookstore owner who overcomes tragedy to find love -- but became disillusioned and upset about two-thirds of the way in, albeit for different reasons than I wound up disliking To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.That said, those who enjoy books with tragic twists will probably enjoy it as it is well written, often amusing, and poignant (yes, that word again).

Read any good books lately, especially ones that made you laugh out loud? Let me -- and other readers -- know via the Comments.

1 comment:

Cat/Sugar Daze said...

I always appreciate your book review posts. You have a knack for weeding through so many titles and uncovering some rare gems. I will definitely be checking out some of these recommendations!

I'm curious to read the second David Sax book and you just reminded me that I had received a copy of the book as a thank you for being interviewed for it.

Have gotten a lot of reading done during our beach break and can add two to your reading list. In the fiction department, I just finished We Are Water by Wally Lamb, who in my opinion is one of the great storytellers of our generation. It was quick read and I really enjoyed it. In non-fiction, I received a copy of Christina Haag's Come to the Edge, her memoir of her love affair with John F Kennedy Jr that spanned several decades. It's not a book that I would normally select but it was a really beautiful story and a must read for anyone who is fascinated by the Kennedy clan.

Lastly, I am sure you have read it but I adored the Goldfinch by Donna Tart which I finished a few months ago. It's a long book, but a haunting tale and I could not put it down!