The Literary Salon – Enchanted April

Last April I posted about a delightful book, Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnin, and since it is April again, I thought this would be a good selection for this month’s Literary Review.    Although this book was written almost a hundred years ago, it’s a favorite of mine for it’s theme of beauty and hope, and how a lovely environment can renew one’s life and perspective.  Here’s a link to the blog……Enchanted April.    I hope your April has been enchanting too! 

The Enchanted AprilThe Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this book, but I had watched the movie first. A timeless tale with a lovely story line and such vivid descriptions of flowers, gardens and beautiful countryside that you almost felt like you were there.

Italian Villa - AMc - 2015

Italian Villa – 2015

The Literary Salon – Travel Books

If you’re not fortunate enough to get away for a vacation this year, what better activity than to curl up with a travel book and listen to the March winds howl, (like a lion the same way they came in).    Last year I wandered into the travel section at bookoutlet.com and never left.   There are so many wonderful travel books available, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few, but here are some of my personal favorites.    (Warning: travel memoirs can be equal parts enjoyable and annoying.   There can be a fine line between reading about someone’s wonderful experiences in a sunnier place, especially when you are still in the dull dreary dregs of winter, and resenting the hell out them.    But remember there can be comfort in staying home too…see The Golden Age of Travel post).      

The Pioneer

Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, was published in 1923, and could be called the first travel memoir of it’s kind.   Set in Italy, I profiled it in a blog last year – see link   How could a book with a captivating opening sentence like this, not be good.    

“To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.  Z, Box 1000, The Times.”

The King and Queen  

A Year in Provence (1989) by Peter Mayle was the first travel memoir I read, and I found it LOL funny.   He went on to write a whole series of memoirs  (read) and a few novels (not read), about Provence.   He made Provence so famous that at one time he moved to Long Island to get away from all the publicity.   He died last year, shortly after his last Provence book was published, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence – Reflections on Then and Now, (read) which is a summary of his life there.   

If Peter Mayle is the King, then Frances Mayes, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, is the Queen, and she made Tuscany a very popular place to visit.   It’s been 25 years since her bestselling book, and she has written wrote four or five more travel books, (read) and has a new one coming out this year See You in the Piazza – New Places to Discover in Italy.  (on order)  She also wrote a novel, Women in Sunlight, last year, which I found so unreadable that I can not recommend it.   I’m still not sure how a novel about four women who travel to Italy can miss, but it did.   Travel memoirs are definitely her forte.   

My Personal Favorite

Susan Branch is my personal favorite of all the travel writers.    For those who think of her as just The Heart of the Home cookbook author, did you know that after she lost her publishing contract with Little and Brown in 2009, she started self-publishing and now has a trilogy of marvelous illustrated journals, with a fourth on the way next year about England, Ireland and Wales.   Her first, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, is about her move from CA to Martha’s Vineyard in the 80’s after a divorce, which I enjoyed as that is a part of the world I would love to visit.  (Her second is about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and is not really a travel book, but more a memoir of her youth).  

A Fine Romance:  Falling in Love with the English CountrysideA Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Her third, A Fine Romance, is about her trip to England and is full of photos and watercolor illustrations, of such sites as Beatrix Potter’s farm in the Lake District and the Jane Austen House in Chawton. 

Susan Branch book

Susan Branch book

I find her monthly newsletters inspiring, and you can check out her books and order them from her website.    I wish she would venture into France and Italy.   

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

All About Paris

One of my favorite books about Paris, is Janice McLeod’s, A Paris Year, which I profiled last year in a blog titled, April in Paris – Part Two  A watercolor artist, her journal is illustrated with her own artwork, and is a quirky and whimsical look at her day to day life in Paris.  

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

Italy Revisited

Marlena de Blasi has written three memoirs about Italy – A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany and The Lady in the Palazzo – At Home in Umbria, which was my favorite of the three.    Her books are well-written and  often poetic, but sometimes irritating with respect to her ex-pat mentality and whining about their failure to fit into a foreign culture.   So if you want to read about someone who makes an impulsive decision to buy a run down palazzo and then complains about how long it takes to renovate it, then this book is for you.    So much of appreciating a travel memoir is based on finding the essayist appealing, still it’s an interesting if illogical journey.  

My Current Read

Elizabeth Bard wrote Lunch in Paris – A Love Story with Recipes, about her  move to Paris and subsequent marriage to a Parisian, which was good, even if I wasn’t much interested in the cooking part, (there are recipes at the end of each chapter).    But I am really liking her second book, Picnic in Provence – a Memoir with Recipes, about their move to a small village in Provence, with their young son.   The writing is honest and real and so well done, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that she has a wee bit of a privileged princess attitude.  

Le Road Trip book

My Latest Discovery

My latest discovery is Vivian Swift, another watercolor artist, found while browsing the bookoutlet website.  (I feel like I’m regressing to my childhood with all these picture books!)    Le Road Trip – A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France is a self-illustrated memoir of her fun and whimsical jaunt through France on her honeymoon.

Le Road Trip Book

 Her latest book (2015) entitled, When Wanderers Cease to Roam – A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put  details the pleasures of finding a place to call home (Long Island Sound) after 23 years of wandering – because sometimes there’s nothing nicer than staying home and reading about travel!    

As you can see, my tastes run to England, France and Italy.   But there’s a whole wide world out there.  What is your favorite travel book?

 

The Literary Salon: The Perfect Couple

Beach Book

We all know them – the perfect couple.  Or are they?   The Perfect Couple is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day, because who doesn’t like to read about relationships, perfect and otherwise.    At the very least, you can escape winter for a few hours  – just keep an eye out for any dead bodies washing up on shore!

The Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s Nantucket wedding season, also known as summer – the sight of a bride racing down Main Street is as common as the sun setting at Madaket Beach. The Otis-Winbury wedding promises to be an event to remember: the groom’s wealthy parents have spared no expense to host a lavish ceremony at their oceanfront estate.

But it’s going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons after tragedy strikes: a body is discovered in Nantucket Harbor just hours before the ceremony-and everyone in the wedding party is suddenly a suspect. As Chief of Police Ed Kapenash interviews the bride, the groom, the groom’s famous mystery-novelist mother, and even a member of his own family, he discovers that every wedding is a minefield-and no couple is perfect. Featuring beloved characters from The Castaways, Beautiful Day, and A Summer Affair, The Perfect Couple proves once again that Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read.

A bit about the Author:

Elin Hilderbrand is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has lived on Nantucket for 25 years and is the mother of three teenagers.   The Perfect Couple is her twenty-first novel.

My Goodreads Review:

My Goodreads Review:The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Discussion:

The first book in my Literary Salon series – An Unwanted Guest – was a study in plot development, just how does one plot a murder mystery?   One of the reasons I chose this second book was for it’s characterizations.  If you have written 21 novels, how do you keep coming up with new characters?  Or are they just cookie-cutter people – change the job, name, appearance?   Her characters are usually flawed beings who make bad choices.  They drink a lot….like fish since we’re going with the water theme.   Sometimes they are so annoying and make such stupid decisions that you feel like abandoning them altogether.   You want the reader to like your characters or at least sympathize with them, not think they are fools.  (Note to self –  make my characters smarter and sober…..no vino for them).    

Elin Hilderbrand is the Queen of Beach Fluff, a genre that is often romance but usually just something lighthearted enough to take to the beach.    She comes out with a big fat beach novel every July, and often a short novella before Christmas.    While I have always enjoyed her books, I had grown a bit weary of the format.   The same old bed-hopping, drinking, even worse drinking while driving, piss-poor parents (her words) whose uncontrollable teenagers are doing the same thing – tale grows stale after awhile, and I admit the books wouldn’t be half as appealing if they weren’t set on the island of Nantucket.   (In much the same way I had tired of Joanna Trollope but her last novel, An Unsuitable Match, about a late in life marriage, was actually quite good – but that’s a whole other topic).    These books are fast food fiction, you already know what you are going to get.   There’s usually plenty of family dynamics and complicated romances all destined to work out (or not) in the end, because hey – it’s beach fluff.   But in this her latest book, you have all of the above, plus she has added a murder mystery and the book seems to have taken on a more serious tone.   She is older now and survived breast cancer in 2014.    I enjoyed the mystery aspect of it, and hope she does more in that vein.    I am currently reading the first of her new winter series, Winter in Paradise – see link, in which a wife loses her husband of 25 years in a helicopter crash in the US Virgin Islands, and finds out he had a whole other life on the island.   (not good – back to trashy again….five drinks on a boat cruise before 10am????)   In the jacket blurb the author says she vacations on St. John’s for five weeks every spring, so she can get big chunks of her writing done in privacy.  (maybe that’s my problem – I need to rent a Caribbean villa with turquoise views).   She does seem to like writing about islands, and the island lifestyle.   She’s certainly been a very successful author financially, and if the format works keep at it, but I can’t help but wish she would tone it down a bit.   But then I probably fall into this category, wherein, Tag the father in law, (who was having an affair with the maid of honor), describes the average reader of his wife’s books.         

‘Her fan base is nearly down to no one but the devoted cat ladies.  Tag is thinking about the devoted cat lady – tucked away in her Cotswold cottage fixing a cup of tea and preparing to spend a rainy afternoon in an armchair with a tabby spread across her lap as she cracks open the latest exotically located Greer Garson mystery.’

In his view, this is a dull life, but it sounds appealing to me and I don’t even own a cat.   But then I am older and her books are pretty much the only romance genre I read.   Although she is a good storyteller, I sometimes find her books are just too trashy.   I would love to see what she does with a theme and characters a little less shallow….and a little less preoccupied with booze and infidelity.   That may seem like an odd thing to criticize as we read escapist fiction to escape, but she is such a good writer that I wish she would tackle some more important stuff, like Jodi Picoult does.   Despite that, The Perfect Couple does have something to say about relationships, both old (how many long term couples stay together for financial reasons despite the affairs) and new, plus a riveting story-line.    If you grew up in the eighties with the Not-Married- Before-Thirty-Terrorist Theory of Love and rom.coms like When Harry Met Sally (doomed IMO, totally incompatible all that arguing) and Sleepless in Seattle (flying all the way across the country to meet someone whose voice you liked on the radio?) then love at first sight may seem perfectly plausible – but do the couple at the end of the book stand a chance?  What do they know about each other?  Yes, there are red flags, but isn’t it all unpredictable anyway – fate is fickle.    Success in love and marriage happens for some people and not others, but hopefully you don’t drown in the process.

Quote of the Day:    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want, is a wonderful stroke of luck.”   (Dali Lama)  

Song of the Day:  Makin’ Whoopee – because the lyrics are fun

 

The Literary Salon – An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest

This is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire, when the first big January snowstorm descends, perhaps with some mulled wine in hand to calm your nerves, for it is so well done you may feel like you have checked into the country inn yourself.     

The publishers  blurb:  When the storm hits, no one is getting away….

A remote lodge in upstate New York is the perfect getaway. . . until the bodies start piling up.  It’s winter in the Catskills and the weather outside is frightful. But Mitchell’s Inn is so delightful! The cozy lodge nestled deep in the woods is perfect for a relaxing–maybe even romantic–weekend away. The Inn boasts spacious old rooms with huge wood-burning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a book and someone you love. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity–and all contact with the outside world–the guests settle in for the long haul. The power’s down but they’ve got candles, blankets, and wood–a genuine rustic experience! Soon, though, a body turns up–surely an accident. When a second body appears, they start to panic. Then they find a third body. Within the snowed-in paradise, something–or someone–is picking off the guests one by one. They can’t leave, and with no cell service, there’s no prospect of getting the police in until the weather loosens its icy grip. The weekend getaway has turned deadly. For some couples, it’s their first time away. For others, it will be their last. And there’s nothing they can do about it but huddle down and hope they can survive the storm.

A bit about the Author:

SHARI LAPENA  is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto.

 

 

My Goodreads review:

An Unwanted GuestAn Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best to save this book for a dark and stormy night in January when a sudden snowstorm has descended and you are safe by the fire with a hot toddy. Absolutely loved it, so creepy and suspenseful I went around and checked all the locks before bed. It’s a simple premise, probably done before, a group of strangers snowed in at a country inn with no outside communication, and one by one they get picked off – by an unwanted guest. Vivid descriptions of the inn and the weather, a twist turning plot, and solid characterizations all make for a great read. A well developed story, from a psychological point of view – how well does anyone really know anyone else……psychopaths dwell among us.

Some thoughts:

It’s a deceptively simple premise for a murder mystery, take a group of people, in this case eleven, nine guests and two staff, and confine them to a space, a la Murder on the Orient Express, so you know the murderer must be among them.    Although this book generally received good reviews there was some criticism that it was too similar to Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None, which I have not read, having only ever read her Orient Express book.   But as a famous author recently proclaimed in one of his podcasts, all possible ideas have been done before anyway, what makes a book different is the authors unique spin on it.    At 290 pages it is a slim book, with the author giving us just enough information about the guests in the first few chapters to enable us to differentiate between them…..and then slowly revealing more background. 

‘The large diamond glittered when she picked up her champagne glass, her eyes sparkled when she looked at her fiance.  Everything about her was shiny and bright.  She has a bright shiny life, Lauren thinks.  Then she directs her attention to the man to whom she is engaged.  What does she think of him?  She thinks he is someone who collects bright, shiny things.’

By the end of the book five of them are dead and I still had no idea who did it until the last couple of pages, although I was a bit let down as there was no dramatic climax, just a slow unraveling, and one clue which I found rather cliche.    Perhaps all the clues have been done before too.     

I always like to check out the authors background, and an English major with a law degree is a lethal combination –  grammar and details.   I hope she sells the movie rights because I’m already casting it in my head.    Her first novel was published in 2007, and her second, Happiness Economics, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humor in 2011.    Just how does one switch from writing humor to murder, but I suspect there is more money in murder mysteries.   This is her third mystery and best so far.   Her two previous books had simple plot ideas as well.    In the Couple Next Door, a couple is invited to dinner at the townhouse next door, but when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to go anyway and rig up the baby monitor and one of them goes home hourly to check, except when the evening is over, the baby is gone.   In A Stranger in the House, a newly married couple find they don’t know much about each other’s background at all.    As a Canadian writer she has a Canadian agent, and while not as well known as Claire MacIntosh or Ruth Ware, I think she is well on her way, and certainly an inspiration for those of us still struggling to find a plot.   How hard can it be to write such a simple thing…..it turns out very hard indeed.   

(See introduction to The Literary Salon link). 

Song of the Day:

 

The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music: