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After my marathon month of reading galleys for the Fabulous Fall Reads presentation I gave at the library yesterday, I needed something absorbing, old-fashioned and satisfying to sink into – and I definitely found that with this novel. The Light Years is one of those books that is complete and total cozy comfort reading – but comfort reading that is very insightful, has realistic, well-drawn characters, is observant and funny. Lots of people are just now discovering Elizabeth Jane Howard, probably because after she died last year there was a flurry of interest in her books. Hilary Mantel wrote a passionate endorsement, which certainly got me interested in reading her, and lately Rachel from Book Snob, has urged us to give EJH, and specifically the Cazalet Chronicles, a try on the Tea or Books? podcast.

The Light Years is essentially a family saga featuring the Cazalet family – Brig and the Duchy, their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. This first novel in the five part series begins in 1937 and ends just as summer is waning in 1938. In this book we’re introduced to all the members of the family, their struggles, fears, joys and interests. The looming war influences a lot of the action and interior thoughts of a majority of the characters, but they’re also plagued by such human concerns as aging, unwanted pregnancy, school hatred, infidelity, forbidden love, illness, etc. It’s absolutely riveting and I so enjoyed losing myself in the lives of this complex family.

I started the second book in the series, Marking Time, the day after I finished this but I had to drag myself away in order to speed read My Cousin Rachel for book club on Tuesday (which is not a hardship, I admit). As soon as I’m finished, though, I’m right back into the lives of the Cazalet clan.

Have you read Elizabeth Jane Howard and the Cazalet Chronicles?

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My book club has been meeting for almost 3 full years now and for much of that time I’ve lobbied to get Gilead on our schedule with no success – until last month! Since this year we took turns choosing the books I knew this would finally be the year we read it (since I’d pick it for my month) and I’m very glad we did. What a marvelous book!

Gilead is written in the form of one long letter from Reverend John Ames to his six-year-old son. Reverend Ames is dying of a heart condition and wants to set down his family history and his thoughts on religion and life in general for his son to read in the future since he won’t be able to tell him these things himself. In a rather rambling style he moves from the past to the present – much like our thoughts work, but all in a really beautiful, lyrical style that is a joy to read.

The first bit of the novel is Ames’s musings and explorations of his heritage and childhood and then the letter switches to a present day description of his struggle to communicate with or trust his best friend’s son, Jack Boughton. Jack is a bad egg, so to speak, and Ames doesn’t like how he hangs around Ames’s son and wife and his cynical, unbelieving attitude. One of the book club members said she thought this part of the novel was unnecessary – she loved just reading about Ames’s memories and philosophical meditations. I thought the conflict (even if just internally) with Jack was fascinating and revealed many more depths of Ames’s character that will someday benefit his son.

Since my book club met during Thanksgiving week we didn’t get a very good turnout, but those of us who attended had a very passionate discussion. This is one of those books that is not only a pleasurable and rewarding read, but also makes for an incredibly stimulating discussion title. I think this is one of the best books that my book club read this year.

Have you read Gilead?

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In Crooked Heart we’re placed right in the middle of WWII-era London during the Blitz. Ten-year-old Noel is an orphan who’s been evacuated to the home of Vee Sedgwick, a woman who just can’t seem to get it together. She can’t hold down a job, makes enemies of her neighbors, and none of her money-making schemes yield results. When Noel enters her life she at first doesn’t see him as anything but a way to make ends meet (by using his ration card) and Noel sees her as something to be endured. Yet as the chaos of war upsets everything around them, even family ties and familiar surroundings, Vee and Noel create a bond that withstands the turmoil. This funny novel explores the dark side of the home front yet is ultimately heartfelt and endearing.

I loved this one! Thanks to Darlene for encouraging me to read it.

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My book club is continuing to take turns choosing our discussion titles each month. We’ve read some really varied things this year, including a lot more non-fiction than we’ve ever read (we have another non-fiction title up in August), a golden age mystery, a historical literary novel and a classic novel. So I wasn’t really surprised when one of the members chose a Regency romance for our July discussion. The member who chose it wanted to read it because it is her mom’s favorite book and she thought it would be fun to read it with the group. Her mom lives in Manchester, England and we wanted to Skype her in for the discussion, but she was understandably nervous about the reaction to her beloved novel (also it would have been 3:30 am in Manchester when we started our discussion).

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried because we all loved it! Heyer’s blend of humor, clever dialogue, a brisk moving plot, historical accuracy and, of course, romance, is an absolute delight. The Grand Sophy starts when Lady Ombersley is asked by her brother to take in his daughter Sophy who has lived abroad for much of her life. Lady Ombersley is hesitant as she, her husband and her children are all under the thumb of her eldest son Charles, who’s recently become heir to his uncle’s fortune. She doesn’t think that Charles will want the expense and hassle of trying to find a husband for Sophy, but reluctantly agrees to accept Sophy into her home anyway. Little does she know what she’s in for – Sophy turns out to be a very high-spirited manager who handily fixes the family’s problems and easily discerns what would be best for them better than they really know for themselves. She’s confident, doesn’t take offense and is lots of fun – a really memorable character.

I wasn’t sure how the discussion would go since The Grand Sophy isn’t deep literature, but we actually had a very lively conversation about what the novel says about womanliness, romance, motherhood, and manipulation. It was one of the best discussions that we’ve had this year.

Next up we’re reading Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.

 

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At my book club’s April meeting I presented three books for the group to choose from and the overwhelming vote was for Someone by Alice McDermott – because it is quite short! However, I was pleased with the choice as this is a novel I’ve contemplated reading for quite a while now and Sunday over at Ciao Domenica had nothing but praise for it which piqued my interest even more.

This is one of those books that is more of a character study than anything – there really isn’t a traditional plot arc that holds it all together. In fact, the narrative moves in out and between the present and the past with no discernible transitions so it takes about 20 pages to realize what McDermott is doing and to become comfortable with the structure. Once you do, though, it’s quite easy to ride the wave of the main character’s memories.

The novel is told in the first person by Marie Commeford, an elderly woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Most of her memories center on the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Her family is Irish Catholic and live in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood and she is close to her beloved father and older brother who’s already been chosen to attend seminary at a young age. Most of her memories have that tender, almost yearning quality that we have as adults looking back on our childhoods. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment in her life, but she tells her story very straightforwardly with little regret. As I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a lot that happens in the novel yet Marie’s unexceptional story is riveting, more riveting to me than that of a spy story or an adventure story. Reading about ordinary people is always fascinating because most of us are ordinary – yet when you read something like this you realize that everyone has an interesting life and that, truly, everyone is ‘someone’.

How did my book club like it? Well, I think the majority of us appreciated it, but there were two members who didn’t – they didn’t see the point of the meandering style and just didn’t enjoy reading about Marie’s life. Despite that we all managed to have a pretty lively discussion about the book and I think it really set off a lot of related examination of our own memories and life stories. All in all, I’d recommend this for book clubs as it is a) short and b) brings up a lot of issues that will lead to a thoughtful discussion.

Have you read Alice McDermott?