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Showing posts from June, 2012

Review: Peking Picnic, by Ann Bridge

Pages: 328 Original date of publication: 1932 My edition: 1989 (Virago Modern Classics) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Ebay, November 2011
Peking Picnic is one of Virago’s lesser-known titles, by one of their lesser-known authors (and sadly, never reprinted; Ann Bridge’s novels are incredibly hard to find). Ann Bridge was the pseudonym of Mary Dolling Sanders. She later married a Foreign Office official, whose work took their family to China. The brief time they spent in China informed the plot of Ann Bridge’s first novel.
Peking Picnic is the story of Laura Leroy, wife to a British attaché in Peking. She is an active participant in Peking life, but misses her children, who are back in England at school. One day, she and a few acquaintances take a trip to a nearby temple. Laura plays fairy godmother, of sorts, to several of the young lovers on the trip, but finds herself intrigued by another member of the party.
Ann Bridge’s writing is lyrically poetic. Laura Leroy is a diff…

Review: Doreen, by Barbara Noble

Pages: 238 Original date of publication: 1946 My edition: 2011 (Persephone) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Persephone shop, September 2011
Doreen is set during WWII and focuses on an issue that many parents living in cities at the time faced. Mrs. Rawlings is a cleaner in a London office who worries about what to do with her nine-year-old daughter during the Blitz. Through Helen Osbourne, a secretary at the office, Mrs. Rawlings finds a place for Doreen at home of Helen’s brother Geoffrey, a solicitor, and his wife, Francie. The Osbournes are a kind, loving couple, and Mrs. Osbourne begins to see a little bit of herself in Doreen. The relationship between Doreen and the Osbournes grows—maybe too much so, from the point of view of the eminently sensible Helen Osbourne.
Barbara Noble writes with an insightful eye. She demonstrates without explicitly saying so the dilemma that many parents of the time faced: should London parents keep their children with them, and possibly put …

Review: China to Me, by Emily Hahn

Pages: 429
Original date of publication: 1944
My edition: 1988 (Virago Travellers)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Ebay, November 2011


Emily Hahn was an American who spent 9 years living in China as a journalist, starting in 1935. She lived first in Shanghai, where she had a common-law marriage with a native Chinese and owned a couple of gibbons. During WWII, she lived in Chungking, where she met her future husband Charles Boxer. I first ran into the prose of this author about a year ago when I read the Virago Book of Women Travellers, in which another essay of Hahn’s is excerpted. The first line of that essay goes:
Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can’t claim that as the reason I went to China. The opium ambition dates back to that obscure period of childhood when I wanted to be a lot of other things, too—the greatest expert on ghosts, the world’s best ice skater, the champion lion tamer, you know the kind of thing. But by the time I went to China I was gr…

Review: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns

Pages: 223
Original date of publication: 1950
My edition: 1983 (Virago)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: February 2011

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is the story of a young woman, Sophia, who marries an artist at a very young age. She and her husband Charles live in poverty, eventually having a child together. Sophia’s life becomes more exciting when she has an affair with an older art critique, but she eventually comes to regret bother her marriage and affair.

It’s a pretty depressing book; not much good happens to Sophia except for a little bit of a windfall towards the end. Sophia is the kind of character who allows things happen to her rather than the other way round, so I didn’t really feel any sympathy towards her—as awful as that sounds, considering what happens to her. Sophia’s narration is a bit flat sometimes; the story is presented in a very unemotional way. But This disaffected style serves the novel well, in a way; it highlights the chilliness of Charles and Sop…

Review: Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor

Pages: 252
Original date of publication: 1957
My edition: 2012 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, March 2012


This is the third of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels that I’ve read: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which I enjoyed and In a Summer Season, which I couldn’t finish. However, Angel is amazing—probably one of the best novels I’ve red all year.

Set at around the turn of the century, the novel’s heroine, if such she can be called, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve come across in a long time. Angelica Deverell lives in a drab English town with her mother. A girl with irrepressible imagination, Angel grows up to become a famous novelist who churns out bad novels that her reading public nonetheless loves (Elizabeth Taylor apparently modeled Angel’s novels on those of Ethel M. Dell, who was a famous writers of romances in the early 20th century). Angel has an inflated sense of her own importance. She is obstinate, self-righteous, narcissistic, e…

Review: Mrs Robinson's Disgrace, by Kate Summerscale

Pages: 294
Original date of publication: 2012
My edition: 2012 (Bloomsbury)
Why I decided to read: Offered through the Amazon Vine program
How I acquired my copy: Amazon Vine, April 2012


Isabella Robinson was a housewife in the mid-19th century. Her husband moved her and their family to Edinburgh, where she met Edward Lane, a doctor who specialized in hydrotherapy (Charles Darwin was one of his patients and supporters later on). Although Dr. Lane was married, Isabella began spending a lot of time with him. She began keeping a diary, detailing her friendship/relationship (real or imagined) with him. When Isabella fell ill, her husband found her diary and began divorce proceedings against her. The diaries were nearly pornographic in nature (the women in the courtroom had to be cleared out before the diaries were read) and indicate a woman who was caught up in her emotions as well as had a strong sex drive.

These are the broad strokes of a fascinating incident—almost a blip in history, but rel…

The Sunday Salon

It’s been a while since I did a Sunday Salon! I’ve just not felt that I had much to report recently. Summer has started, and I’m a little less busy than I was in the spring—I’m only taking one class this semester instead of two. I find that I actually do better in my classes when I have more work to do. I’m a list-maker; when I made a list of things I need to do, it makes me do those things all that much faster (I also make lists of things I’ve already done, so I can cross them off!). I did well (for me, at least) in the two classes I took in the spring, although they were difficult. But I like a challenge!
I’ve also had some time this weekend to fool around with the layout and template of this blog. I’ve had the same one up for so long that I figured it was a time for a change. I've also been playing around with Blogger's new interface; there seem to have been some improvements. It's easier to upload photos; on the old interface, my computer kept crashing (or maybe that …

Review: The Kings' Mistresses, by Elizabeth Goldsmith

Pages: 256
Original date of publication: 2012
My edition: 2012 (Public Affairs)
Why I decided to read: offered through the LTER program
How I acquired my copy: review copy from LTER, April 2012


“A woman’s reputation depends on not being talked about.” So went the first line of Hortense Mazarin’s memoirs, belying the fact that much of her life, and that of her sister, Marie Mancini, was lived in the public eye, talked about and written about in the public gazettes. Both sisters bucked the traditions of the time by running away and seeking divorces from their husbands. The nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, Hortense and Marie made an impact early on at the French court, where Marie had a love affair with the King. A review of the book in a blurb on the back from Kirkus Reviews compares the two sisters to the Kardashians—a not unfair comparison.

I think it would be a cliché to say that a work of nonfiction is written as though it’s fiction, but the story of Marie and Hortense is written in an easy-fl…

Review: Elizabeth I, by Margaret George

Pages: 671
Original date of publication: 2011
My edition: 2012 (Penguin)
Why I decided to read: bought on a whim
How I acquired my copy: bookshop in the Phoenix airport, April 2012


Elizabeth I continues to fascinate people 400 years after her death. Arguably England’s greatest queen, she left a legacy that included, among other things, the defeat of the Spanish Armada (leading to the waning of Spain’s influence as a world power), exploration of the New World (leading to the rise of English power abroad), and the rise of the Golden Age of English drama, personified in the works of Marlowe, Kyd, and Shakespeare. Although Elizabeth herself was such a public figure, she kept her thoughts private. So it’s intriguing to wonder what was going on in her head. Elizabeth I is one of many novels that seeks to find out.

The story is told from the point of view of both Elizabeth and her cousin and nemesis Lettice Knollys, whose marriage to Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, led to Lettice’s banishment…

Review: The Moonspinners, by Mary Stewart

Pages: 388 Original date of publication: 1962 My edition: 2003 (HarperTorch) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Local bookshop, June 2009
Awhile ago, the author Deanna Raybourn had a blog post which basically sums up the essence of Mary Stewart’s novels, much better than I could ever describe them. The Moonspinners sticks pretty much to Mary Stewart’s tried-and-true formula—but she always manages to hold her readers in suspense, no matter what.
Here, Nicola Ferris is a young secretary with the British Embassy who decides to take a holiday and meet her cousin on Crete. She inadvertently arrives a day early and runs into two hikers, one of which is Mark Langley, who has witnessed a murder and is in hiding. Added on top of all this is that Mark’s brother Colin has disappeared…
Mary Stewart’s novels are quick, beachy reads, and highly addictive—I finished this one in several sittings over the course of a day. She writes about place very well, almost to the point that the location of…

Review: The Autobiography of Henry VIII, by Margaret George

Pages: 960
Original date of publication:
My edition: 1998
Why I decided to read:
How i acquired my copy: The NYC Strand, Summer 2006


Review originally published September 11 2006 on Amazon.com

We all know the Henry VIII of legend: the obese king with six wives, who executed two, divorced two, "killed" a fifth, and was only survived by one; who had gout and a variety of other ailments. Too often, too, we only hear his story through his enemies. However, Margaret George's "autobiographical" novel tells Henry's story through is own eyes--leaving nothing out but sometimes changing the truth a bit to suit his own purposes. In addition, his old Fool, Will Somers puts Henry's story into perspective, giving us an "afterward" of sorts."

The novel begins with Henry's origins: the struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster. Continuing through childhood and beyond, the Autobiography tells the story of a truly remarkable person, one who is often m…