Review: Heart and Soul

I was very excited to see that Maeve Binchy has a new book out called Heart and Soul. It seems that a few years back Binchy herself visited a heart clinic as a patient, and so decided to make it the setting for her new book.

I do love her work and have read all her novels. This one incorporated a lot of characters from earlier books. If you read Scarlet Feather, Quentins, Tara Road, or Evening Class (or others!) you will recognize characters and plot lines from those books.

This is not a short book – over 400 pages – and I read it in large print – 680 pages! – in order to get it more quickly from the library. In part this book is a series of vignettes, telling the background or behind-the-scene stories of the staff and patients who attend the heart clinic at the center of the book. Binchy fans all agree that Maeve is a veteran storyteller – with stories that leave you feeling warm and happy. She is beloved. However, Heart and Soul didn’t quite capture me. While I loved the stories, I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters in this book and had to think to keep them all straight. I was once taught that in writing all characters must serve a purpose, so I had to wonder about the inclusion of some of these characters (such as Tim – and I bet you’re saying ,”Wait, who was Tim??”) – except that it did lead to a somewhat tidy ending, with people paired up nicely and happily. I also felt that some of the characters were unevenly developed. I would have loved to learn more about Declan (who seemed to stop mid-novel), but I felt Ania was portrayed as a saint. I rather liked Bobby’s rude and abrasive wife, and would have liked to see her turnabout better portrayed.

In all, I would give this book 3 1/2 Stars. I liked it, but I didn’t love it as I have some of her other novels (Light a Penny Candle, Evening Class, The Glass Lake, Silver Wedding). Perhaps part of it is me as a reader – I love to read about “old Ireland” and Binchy has changed her style to reflect the new, modern Ireland, which I find less charming. Regardless, Maeve Binchy is still one of my favorite writers and I will look forward to her next novel!

Review: Peony in Love

I truly enjoyed Lisa See’s novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so I looked forward to reading Peony in Love. I was not disappointed. Peony in Love is a wonderful read for those who, like me, enjoy historical fiction that is entertaining, intriguing, and elucidating.

Peony in Love is the story of a young Chinese girl from the 1600’s who becomes entranced with the opera The Peony Pavilion. This story takes over her waking moments and her own life, and death, parallels the story of the opera. Peony, our heroine, goes from being a teenage girl betrothed to a stranger, to a “lovesick maiden”, to a wandering and “hungry” ghost, all the while telling her story and narrating her journey. Even though she is dead, she strives to complete and publish her writings and analysis of the Peony Pavilion opera, using human sources.

Intriguing – yes – but what fascinated me is that so much of this story is based on fact. Without going into too much of the historical details, believe me when I write that there really was a Peony Pavilion opera, a cult of “lovesick maidens, and a person that the character of Peony is based on who contributed to a book about that opera. Even more interesting, there were thousands of published women poets and writers during this period of the mid 1600’s in China, but sadly very little is left of their writings today.

See tells her story with her typical lush and wonderful writing. Her word choice is always spot on. Her depictions are vivid and her characters developed to the point where you feel that they are real. This is a beautiful, poignant story which a reader will not soon forget.

I have to give it my coveted 5 Stars award!! I got my copy from the library, but might need to purchase it!

Review: The September Society

On a recent trip to the library, I picked up an interesting little book called The September Society by Charles Finch. It is a historical mystery (fiction), dealing with a murder occurring at Oxford University in 1866 and detective Charles Lenox, who works to solve it.

This was my first book of Finch’s, though he has written another with the same protagonist (A Beautiful Blue Death). Finch himself is a graduate of Oxford and he writes of the school’s traditions and the area it encompasses so skillfully and passionately that I feel that I was there. The mystery is intriguing: two missing students and a dead body along with some puzzling clues, and it kept me guessing until the (surprising) ending. Finch does a nice job developing his characters, with subplots running throughout the book in addition to the mystery.

I enjoyed this book so much, as did my husband, that I am going to look up his other novel. I hope that these are the first of many books to come from Finch!

I give this book 4 Stars.

Review: Moon Tiger

I recently read Penelope Lively’s novel, Moon Tiger, which won the 1987 Booker Prize. It is beautifully written story of the life of Claudia Hampton, told from varying points of view. Claudia is a memorable character – strong and independent, self-reliant yet selfish. The book largely covers Claudia’s years as a reporter in Egypt during WWII and her ill-fated love affair with an officer stationed there.

While this book was well-written, I found the switching of voice and the lack of chronological order at times confusing.  An experience would be presented, then the same event retold, but told from another point of view. It was not a book you could read lightly!

Claudia is so vividly portrayed that she feels “real”, however, I found I didn’t like her. She was insensitive and self-centered. Her relationship with her daughter, especially when Lisa was young, was heart-breaking for the lack of feeling and lack of love that she displayed. Her relationship with her brother was disturbing. She is a character not soon forgotten.

Lively’s word choice and descriptions are picture perfect, but I can’t say I loved this story. I would give it 3 1/2 Stars. I got my copy from the library.

Review: The Other Queen

I have read most, if not all, of Philippa Gregory’s historical novels, so I was excited to receive “The Other Queen” as a Christmas gift. “The Other Queen” tells the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, particularly of the time when she was held against her will, under a type of house arrest, in England. Mary’s years with the Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot, and his indomitable wife, Bess of Hardwick, are covered.
In some ways, this book was standard Gregory fare: the characters are well-developed and I felt I gleaned some insights into the difficult Elizabethan times in which this book was set. However, at the same time, I felt Gregory took more liberties with her characters than in other books. Queen Mary is seen as loving George Talbot, who is depicted as honorable to the point of being tormented by his sense of honor. His wife, Bess, is ambitious to a flaw. It is hard to imagine these as real-life characters as they seemed rather “created” to me. Additionally, at over 400 pages, this book didn’t move as quickly for me as Gregory’s other books.

Regardless, I did enjoy this book, and felt I learned a bit about Mary, Queen of Scots, a royal with whom I was not very familiar. I would give this book 3 1/2 Stars!