The Bronte Project by Jennifer Vandever

I am starting to get annoyed with the recommendations slapped on book covers. For example, Karen Quinn called The Bronte Project “a brilliant first novel of love. ” On the back  there’s more praise: “So original, so enchanting, so poignantly true that it defies you to put it down.” But wait- that’s also by Quinn. Was there only one author willing to give this book their seal of approval? After reading The Bronte Project, I’m not surprised.

The blurb makes this sound like a great read, especially for someone as enamored of Brontes as I am.

Shy young scholar Sara Frost’s unsuccessful search for the lost love letters of Charlotte Bronte hasn’t won her any favours at her university, particularly now the glamorous new Head of Princess Diana Studies has introduced her media-savvy exploits to the staid halls of academia. But it’s not until Sara’s fiance suddenly leaves her that she begins to question her life’s vocation.

I thought the book sounded like it had promise…but not so much. By about half way through I was totally exasperated with the expository nature of the writing, the mini-lessons on the Brontes, the ridiculous decisions Sara made and the even more outlandish denouement. Then I realized that Vandever is a Film School graduate. Like Sara, maybe she hoped her work would somehow make the perfect fodder for a film.

Let’s face it – I don’t have anything intelligent to say about this book…except perhaps – don’t waste your time reading it. Even if, like me, you love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Town House by Tish Cohen

You can’t help but think that Tish Cohen is going for Hollywood with her novel Town House. There’s the wacky ensemble cast: Jack Madigan, son of deceased rock legend Baz Madigan; Jack’s son, the eccentric stuck-in-the-70’s teen, Harlan;  Jack’s ex-wife, Penelope, and her soon- to- be new husband, Yale; the strangely mature girl-next-door, Lucinda and Dorrie, the real estate agent so inept and adorable you just know she and Jack will end up together. (It will come as no surprise that Town House is, in fact, destined for the big screen.

As for the plot, well, Jack’s agoraphobic; he can’t leave the house without having a meltdown – so he doesn’t leave.  He rigs up a ‘groper’ to retrieve the paper and the mail; Harlan looks after the groceries and Jack lives quite happily in the huge (albeit, slightly decrepit) Boston town house his father left for him. The hilarity starts when the money stops and the bank decides that the house must be sold.

Town House isn’t all that funny, though. Sure, it ticks along, but the characters didn’t really interest me. And some of the plot twists just seemed contrived and unrealistic. I absolutely hated the ending. Cue music, already.

Sometimes the plot seems to be pointing in one direction – for example Jack is apparently a master paint mixer. He has discovered (and understands) the perfect white. A subplot involving that goes nowhere.  Also, I thought his love-interest was spineless. And, despite his illness, of which, I admit, I know nothing, Jack isn’t all that likable. How is he, after all, able to bust free of his illness when Lucinda needs him, but can’t do the same for his own son?

So – I didn’t love this book. It was moderately entertaining, and might make an amusing film, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton

A couple weeks ago I mentioned Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, a book I read almost 20 years ago. If you haven’t already read it, I can highly recommend it as a compelling novel about art and literature, particularly from the Greek period. But even if this isn’t your thing, The Secret History tells an intriguing tale of friendships made and destroyed on a college campus. It’s a book that has stayed with me all these years and one I should really re-read.

Ivo Stourton’s novel The Night Climbers mirrors Tartt’s novel in some respects. When James Walker arrives at Tudor College, Cambridge, he is careful about the friendships he forms.

My father and Evelyn Waugh had warned me against the dangers of making early friends, so I deliberately avoided contact with my fellow freshers in my first weeks, hoping to cultivate a vague air of mystery that would bring me to the notice of the social elite.

Pure chance brings Michael Findlay into his room and then, shortly thereafter,  into a secret circle known as The Night Climbers.  James is smitten with The Night Climbers, particularly Francis, the son of a Lord.  Francis is beautiful and irreverent, blithely spending his substantial allowance on alcohol, drugs and dinners out. Soon James is a part of this group and the novel follows their escapades from their delirious (both literally and figuratively) highs to their rock-bottom lows.

Stourton’s novel is well written. The story begins some years after James has left university and is paid a visit by one of his former friends who hints at some trouble that might be coming their way. The story then artfully backtracks, introducing us to this interesting group of characters. James is not altogether unsympathetic, either, which is helpful because despite Stourton’s skill, the book lacked any emotional resonance for me.

Revenge by Mary Morris

Revenge is the story of Andrea Geller,  an artist who teaches at a small college in Hartwood. Andrea has gained some notoriety for a collection of art she once showed at a gallery in New York, but now her work has stalled.  She’s also struggling with the recent accidental death of her father. She’s having an affair with a married man.  All in all, Andrea’s a bit of a mess.

She happens to live across the street from Loretta Partlow, a highly successful novelist. Although Partlow had been required reading in high school, Andrea isn’t much of a fan until her stepmother mentions loving Partlow’s novel  What If? So Andrea revisits her work, the novels and essays on gardening and the poems. She becomes sort of obsessed with Partlow and contrives ways to bump into her.

Revenge is the rather odd story of the friendship which develops between Andrea and Loretta. Andrea enters into the relationship thinking Loretta might use her writing skills to exact a sort of revenge on her stepmother, but her scheme is only incidental to the story. Revenge is not a thriller, exactly, but you do race along its bizarre trajectory hoping for answers which never come.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like Revenge. Morris is a fine writer and I look forward to reading more of her work (and, in fact, I have Acts of God on my tbr shelf). This is, however, one of those books that seems to be promising one thing and then delivers something entirely different.

Ultimately, Morris has written a story about two rather quirky and self-centered women who need each other… until they don’t.

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

So, while my copy of Donnelly’s novel is called A Gathering Light, apparently the novel is called A Northern Light in the USA. I don’t understand why they have to change book titles. Does anyone know the rationale?

Whatever the book is called – I loved it. I didn’t even realize it fell into the category of teen fiction until I finished it and started reading about Donnelly.

A Gathering Light is the story of 16 year old Mattie who lives with her widowed father and three younger sisters on a farm in Adirondacks in 1906. Her older brother, Lawton, has left home after a fight with their father and the family doesn’t even know where he is. Life on the farm isn’t easy. Mattie’s family doesn’t have much money and Mattie isn’t the homemaker her mother was. Her father – since the loss of his wife – is stern and angry. Mattie has to juggle her responsibilities at home with her secret desire to go off to college and study to be a writer.

Donnelly’s novel does a number of things remarkably well. First of all, it captures a time and place beautifully. After a particularly disastrous start to her day Mattie recalls that her mother could “make breakfast for seven people, hear our lessons, patch Pa’s trousers, pack our dinner pails, start the milk to clabbering and roll out a piecrust. All at the same time and without ever raising her voice.”

Mattie is a wonderful character. I fell in love with her from the start – her kindness (when she feeds a couple kids from down the road, even though there’s barely enough food for her own siblings and father)  and her determination and even her dreams – to leave her home and go off to New York City.

During the summer, Mattie goes off to work at the Glenmore, the finest hotel on Big Moose Lake.  While there she meets a guest, a young woman, who hands her a bundle of letters and tells Mattie to burn them. Later that day, the woman is found drowned; her companion, a young man, is missing. It is these letters and the fact of the woman’s death that propel Mattie on her journey towards freedom and adulthood. Of course, it’s all much more complicated than that. The most handsome boy around, Royal, has his eye on Mattie. She can’t forget the promise she made to her dying mother that she’d look after her sisters and father and her teacher, the outrageously independent Miss Wilcox, is hell-bent on getting Mattie off the farm.

A Gathering Light draws some of its inspiration from a real life murder, but ultimately this is Mattie’s story. It’s impossible not to root for her.