Reviews

Letters from Skye: A Review

Some you already know that I love an epistolary novel. I talked about my favorites a few months ago in Letters That Make Books. I recently came across Letters from Skye, a novel by Jessica Brockmole, made up of letters from two different couples in two different wars. Here’s the summary from Goodreads.com:

Letters from SkyeA sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.

June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

I typically try to avoid books that are divided between two time periods, but that’s getting harder to do! Uncovering the past is a current obsession in literature. The time period of this book was similar to Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, but the plot was not as full and well developed. Over all, Letters from Skye was middling to not all that great. I loved the setting of the Island of Skye, off of the coast of Scotland, but more description would have really enriched the book. The characters didn’t appeal to me much. The main character, Elspeth, is intriguing and likable at first. She has an Emily Bronte vibe to her. Her choices throughout the book baffled me, though. Her daughter Margaret is more of a Nancy Drew. She sometimes made me think “give me a break with the gumption thing, will you?” The male main character, David, is…erm…not my type. If you have read this book already, you know what I mean when I say, “Team Iain!” For the most part, I wished the characters of the first World War would just get out of their own tangled way.

But beyond the characters, the part about this book that brought it down most for me was the theme of adultery. I know, I know, how Puritan is it to throw out the scarlet letter and hate on it. But this book makes an extramarital affair look mostly lovely, which seems convoluted to me. I know life isn’t black and white, I know the human mind can justify all kinds of things, but in the lives of some of my friends currently and since high school, I have only seen the ugly truth that extramarital affairs cause wreckage. Have I seen good come out of these situations? Yes, sometimes, but the good is slow to come and comes with a great deal of pain. Though this book doesn’t completely ignore the heartache of an affair, it does skim over it way more than reality does.

But in all honesty, I don’t think I would have loved this book with or without the adultery theme. There was just something missing in the plot and the characters. Beautiful cover, though. =)

If you enjoy books made up of letters exchanged between characters, I’d recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or  84, Charing Cross Road over Letters from Skye.

Reading, Reviews

The Secret Keeper

The Secret KeeperI finished The Secret Keeper and now I would like to pick it up and read it again, cover to cover, in one sitting.  Kate Morton not only paints pictures with her words, she pulls you into the room with her characters and even pulls you into the characters themselves. At least that’s what happened to me while I read this book. There’s one scene in particular set in London during the blitz that I really do think made me feel the floor of the crumbling boarding house shake. You must read this book.  I think it’s Morton’s best work yet.

I’m not sure how to summarize the book; it’s so hard to give any details without giving this twisty plot away. The novel is set in England, mostly, and shifts between WWII, 1961, and 2011. There is also a brief chapter set in…well, I can’t tell you. Just like in The Forgotten GardenThe Secret Keeper begins with a daughter searching for answers about her family. Sixteen-year-old Laurel has a lovely family life, though she doesn’t always appreciate it, but when she’s on the brink of plunging into adulthood, she witnesses her mother commit a crime. The crime is completely out of characters and makes no sense to her. Laurel moves on with her life, but the past stays lodged in her mind until she finally decides to seek answers about her mother’s life.

I’m always a bit wary of the type of novel where the plot is unraveled by a present day character discovering the truth through digging up the past. The first book I read that used that format was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Written in 1951, it’s a great detective story, but not necessarily a great work of literature. However, Kate Morton is masterful with this format–she knows how to keep the plot moving and seamless enough to keep her readers engaged through the changes in characters, settings, and times. I thoroughly enjoyed how the story line describes each character more fully as the plot thickens so that by the end of the book, you feel as if you really know them (if you’ve read more than one of my posts, you know character development means a lot to me).

Of all the characters in this book, Laurel’s mother is my favorite, and is also now one of my favorite literary heroines. She is the kind of mother I want to be: she plays with her children imaginatively, creates a home for them full of beauty and harmony (to the extent possible in a five-child family), and has a loving relationship with her husband/Laurel’s father. She has an inner strength that inspires and comforts her children. The historical journey Laurel goes on to discover her mother’s roots calls her mother’s entire character into question. Laurel doesn’t know what to think or how to feel about who her mother really is. She asks the question, “Who was my mother before she became my mother?” That question still resonates in my mind. How do mothers stay true to themselves while giving of themselves? Is that possible or even important? The struggle to maintain my identity while becoming the best mother I can possibly be baffles me at times. I used to be athletic, studious, organized…well, all I can say is (1) I stay in shape as best I can, (2) please don’t look in my closets, and (3) I put sleep above studying anything most days.  But I want my children to know who I am beyond their  own personal servant and the prince at every pretend ball. Okay, sometimes I get to be the fairy godmother. But she’s not exactly someone I identify with either. =)

The theme of mother-daughter relationships is very central to Kate Morton’s work. I’d love to sit down with her and ask her why she writes about it so often and what she hopes her readers gain from the relationships in her books. If nothing else, The Secret Keeper (I keep wanting to type The Secret Garden), made me think through setting some clear goals about what my children need to know about me. Even if it seems they don’t care now, it seems like grown daughters crave an anchor in who their mother was at all stages of life, not just the mothering one. I have a way better foundation for that than Laurel did, but there are still questions I should probably ask my mom now that I never thought to ask when I was younger. Kids forget that moms and dads are real people, too. =)

So make haste to grab The Secret Keeper and read it for fun or for perspective on parenting and mother-daughter relationships. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

By the way, if you’re a fan of Kate Morton you may also enjoy The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield. It’s a bit darker, but it’s similar in settings and style.

Happy summer reading!

Everyday Life, Saturday Cooking

Saturday Cooking

I’m still enjoying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I’m flirting with The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton (i.e. I read a page or two between reading Huck Finn because I am so eager to really sit down to read it and find it if it’s good like The Forgotten Garden or not so good like The House at Riverton–I’ll let you know soon!). 

But today, I’m not reading a whole lot other than cookbooks, which is really not my preferred genre. Here’s a little known fact: I don’t really like to cook. Bake, yes. But cook, not so much. I can cook and we do eat most of our meals at home. I’m committed to feeding my family of four healthfully and I’m trying to learn how to do that on a consistent budget. But since cooking is not a passion of mine (and I’m definitely not a foodie, either), I struggle to consistently plan and cook well-rounded and/or scrumptious meals. Here’s what I’d eat for every meal if I didn’t have a family:

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Yes, this is really my kitchen.

Dark chocolate, fruit, almonds, granola, and coffee would keep me happy for weeks.

When I hit on a good and easy recipe, I serve it into the ground. Or so it feels to me. So today I spent the morning developing a monthly meal plan with a daily theme, such as Mondays are Asian food, Tuesdays are Mexican, etc. I’ve tried monthly meal plans before, but I generally pick 30 meals and have a hard time sticking to it. So this time I have more like 12 meals that I’m repeating 2-3 times in the month. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The All New Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook: Over 1,250 of Our Best RecipesSince I have cooking on the brain, today I’m sharing my favorite cookbooks of all time. I know, who uses cookbooks when you could just search the internet? Well, I don’t have many cookbooks, but I feel I need them when I’m trying to find dinner ideas–allrecipes.com is great but it overwhelms me. I’ll start with the best cookbook in the world: The All New Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook. My grandmother gave this book to me for Christmas a year after I got married (thanks, Gammy!), and since then I have tried at least forty recipes. They are always perfect or nearly perfect. It’s my go-to idea book when it comes to meal planning. The recipes vary from ridiculously easy to more advanced, but you can generally tell in a glance how hard the recipe will be. If you look into it, definitely try the recipes in the Healthy Eating section. The cake section and the breakfast section are also especially good. One of our favorites is the chicken and bowtie pasta recipe.

Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious RecipesAnd when I feel like cooking some Italian food, I always look first in Everyday Italian by Giada de Laurentiis. I don’t actually watch any cooking shows, mostly because we choose not to have cable or satellite television (it’s becoming clear how I have time to read, now, isn’t it?), but I think Giada de Laurentiis’s books are awesome.  I’ve had this one since it first came out and it’s literally falling apart. The “Everyday Sauces” section has changed my cooking life. And if you’re a visual cookbook viewer, there’s a photo for almost every recipe.  A photo that will make your mouth start watering before you even read the name of the food.

And lastly, I love this:

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This is the recipe notebook a couple of my bridesmaids gave me and the recipes they had everyone at my wedding shower give me for my book. I’ve added so many more shared recipes since then and it is a treasure in my house. It’s also falling apart and rather covered in muffin batter in places, but it will never be retired.

So what’s for dinner tonight? Here, my husband is grilling chicken (yes, about a third of my menu plan includes my husband grilling, but he likes to grill…I’m pretty sure he likes to grill…) and we’re having Ginger and Honey Glazed Carrots and muffins. Because my kids love muffins and it’s an easy way to add whole wheat flour and wheat germ into their diets. =)

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