What’s in a Name 2014 Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve officially completed the 2014 What’s in a Name challenge, hosted this year by The Worm Hole!

What's in a Name 2014

Participants were asked to read books whose titles fit within six different categories. Here’s what I read:

1.) A title with a reference to time: LATE NIGHTS on Air by Elizabeth Hay
2.) A title with a position of royalty: The Midnight QUEEN by Sylvia Izzo Hunter
3.) A title with a number written in letters: The TWO Mrs. Abbotts by D.E. Stevenson
4.) A title with a forename or names: The Letters of NANCY Mitford and EVELYN Waugh
5.) A title with a type or element of weather: The SUNNE in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman
6.) A title with a school subject: The Beauty CHORUS by Kate Lord Brown

I enjoyed almost every book I read for this challenge…I don’t even think I can pick a clear favorite. But The Beauty Chorus was definitely my least favorite! So this was a fun challenge for me, and while I probably won’t be doing it next year (I’m really cutting back on challenges in 2015!), I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to get a little creative about choosing books!

Review: The Beauty Chorus

Beauty Chorus, TheKate Lord Brown, The Beauty Chorus

This novel centers around three female pilots who join the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes back and forth between Allied bases during World War II. Evie Chase is a headstrong young debutante who enjoys her life of privilege but wants to “do her bit” for the war effort — and escape from her odious stepmother. Stella Grainger is struggling with being separated from her baby boy, whom she’s sent to her husband’s parents in Ireland. And Megan Jones, a 17-year-old Welsh girl, wants nothing more than to keep her family’s farm running and to marry her sweetheart, Bill. These three young women couldn’t be more different, but when they join the ATA and become roommates, they form an extremely close bond. Together they deal with the challenges of flying different aircraft, the discrimination they face for being women in a man’s world, and the joys and sorrows of wartime love affairs. But despite their strength and determination, they can never quite escape the brutal realities of war.

This is a book I really wanted to love. The story has so much going for it — WWII, female pilots, romance, and even a little espionage! — but unfortunately, I was disappointed. The biggest problem for me was the clunky writing style; for example, on one occasion, the author drops a character name into the story before introducing that character. I had to flip backward to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed his entrance, but in fact, it was just a confusing way to introduce the new character. There’s also a lot of head-hopping in the book; not only does the point of view shift between the three girls (which would be understandable), but there are random paragraphs from the perspectives of their suitors and various other minor characters. Finally, while I liked the main characters in theory, they never really rose above clichés. For example, Evie is a typical HF heroine: incredibly beautiful, naturally talented as a flyer, and implausibly far ahead of her time. Overall, while the book certainly wasn’t a slog, I can’t say I’d recommend it either.

Review: The Midnight Queen

Midnight Queen, TheSylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall is a promising student of magick at Oxford’s prestigious Merlin College, but his life changes instantly when an ill-fated midnight expedition results in the death of one of his classmates. Although Gray had nothing to do with the violence that resulted in this tragedy, he soon learns that everyone is blaming him. His tutor, Professor Appius Callender, whisks him off to the professor’s country house as punishment for his supposed misdeeds. At first Gray is miserable there; his magickal powers seem to have deserted him, and he is forced to work in the professor’s gardens all day. But then he meets Sophie, the professor’s kind and intelligent daughter, and he soon discovers there is more to her than meets the eye. As Gray and Sophie become closer, they begin to uncover shocking secrets about Sophie’s family, as well as a conspiracy that threatens not only Gray but the entire kingdom of Britain.

I hardly ever buy books on impulse anymore; usually I’ll only shell out money for an author or series I already know I like. But this book jumped out at me because of its beautiful cover, and then the lure of a Regency-era fantasy with romance totally sold me! Overall, I’m glad I took the plunge in buying this book, because I really enjoyed it. Gray is a very endearing hero: studious, shy, and hardworking, with a stutter that appears when he’s nervous. He’s well matched in Sophie, a heroine who is strong without being abrasive and forward-thinking without being anachronistic. The book moves fairly slowly, which might bother some readers, and I also felt that the plot was a bit scattered. For example, Gray frequently mentions his various siblings, but only one of them is even “on page” in this book, so I was a bit confused and distracted by the other sibling references. Still, I suppose these loose ends and tangents might be resolved in a sequel; if one should materialize, I’ll definitely be seeking it out!

Review: The Sunne in Splendour

Sunne in Splendour, TheSharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour

When most people think of Richard III, they picture a hunchbacked villain who was obsessed with being king and who murdered the princes in the Tower as a result. But in this novel, the last Plantagenet king is portrayed in a very different light: Richard (or Dickon, as most characters call him) is noble and loyal to a fault, and these good traits are ultimately what cause his downfall. The novel begins with Dickon’s childhood, when his father, the Duke of York, is killed in the war against the Lancastrian Henry VI. Dickon’s oldest brother Edward subsequently takes his father’s place in leading the Yorkist faction against Henry; eventually, he is crowned as Edward IV, and Dickon becomes one of his most trusted advisers and most skilled battle commanders. But as Edward obtains more and more power, Dickon becomes disillusioned with his brother’s morally questionable choices, and the struggle of brother against brother mirrors the broader conflict between York and Lancaster.

As always, in this book Sharon Kay Penman manages to bring the Middle Ages to life. I always enjoy her vivid descriptions of daily life during this period, as well as her depictions of medieval religion, warfare, and politics. This book in particular is a fascinating political study, showing that the cutthroat nature of modern politics is rooted in a long tradition. I also like the fact that this novel approaches Richard III from a countercultural perspective. While I don’t know enough about the subject to judge whether Penman’s interpretation is justified, it makes sense to me that Henry Tudor (who acceded to the throne after Richard’s death) would want to do everything in his power to discredit his predecessor. It’s always important to remember that history is written by the victors! All in all, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Richard III, the War of the Roses, or the Middle Ages in general.

Review: The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh

Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, TheCharlotte Mosley, ed., The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh

“I want to write a sad story of a man who gave up drink and hated all his chums. It is me.” — Evelyn Waugh, 12 November 1944.

Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh were two of the most popular and respected authors of the early and mid-20th century; they were also lifelong friends who kept up a correspondence lasting more than two decades. This book is a collection of their letters to each other, which are full of jokes, literary allusions, and most of all gossip. They each had a very pointed, satirical sense of humor that was frequently directed at members of their own social set — and quite often at each other. In many ways they couldn’t be more different: Waugh was very conservative, old-fashioned, and staunchly Roman Catholic, while Mitford was a spiritually indifferent socialist living as an expatriate in Paris. But their correspondence reveals that they understood one another and shared a deep, affectionate friendship. Through their discussions of current events, important people, and of course books (both their own and other people’s), Mitford and Waugh’s letters provide a unique window into their age.

It’s taken me a long time to write this review, because how can one “review” a collection of letters that weren’t (necessarily) meant to be public? All I can say is that I enjoyed reading them. I’ve read a few books by each of these authors — Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust — but otherwise I didn’t know much about either of them. I do think some level of familiarity with their work is helpful, but you definitely don’t have to be an expert in order to enjoy these letters. They’re often hilarious (how I shrieked, as Nancy would say) and also have some interesting discussions about literature. I want to read more of their books now! Of course, their chatter about mutual friends and acquaintances was hard to follow, although the editor did a fairly good job of identifying people in footnotes; but I still enjoyed this collection overall. If you’re interested in early- and mid-20th-century literature, this might be a good book to seek out.

Review: The Two Mrs. Abbotts

Two Mrs. Abbotts, TheD.E. Stevenson, The Two Mrs. Abbotts

Warning: SPOILERS for Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married.

This third book in the “Miss Buncle” series jumps forward in time to explore life in an English village during World War II. Barbara Abbott, née Buncle, now lives in Wandlebury with her husband and two adorable children. The war apparently has little effect on her life, except that there is less food available at the market. But Barbara’s niece by marriage, Jerry Abbott, is dealing with the fact that her husband Sam is fighting somewhere in Africa; in the meantime, she has opened her home to soldiers and evacuees. But despite the privations and worries of wartime, there are still plenty of opportunities for gossip and romance! Sullen Lancreste Marvell has fallen in love with an unsuitable woman; famous authoress Janetta Walters is coming to Wandlebury to speak at the village bazaar; and Jerry’s brother Archie finally seems to be ready for marriage. Finding herself in the midst of these entanglements, will Barbara be able to engineer a happy ending?

I’m so happy that Sourcebooks is re-releasing D.E. Stevenson’s books! I really loved the first two “Miss Buncle” books, and this one is also quite fun and charming, though it definitely suffers by comparison. The problem with this book is that it lacks cohesion; there are several little plots going on, but they are largely independent of one another. Some plots also seem to peter out with no resolution; for example, in the beginning of the book, an old friend of Barbara’s comes to visit, and it seems as though she is going to be a big part of the story, but then she vanishes about halfway through the book. Ultimately the biggest story is about Archie’s courtship, which is quite sweet, but it’s not really developed in much depth. I did like reading a World War II novel that isn’t really about the war, but nevertheless the war affects many aspects of the characters’ lives. The happy, wholesome picture of village life in this book was most likely vanishing at the time Stevenson wrote the novel. Overall, I’d recommend this book to people who liked the other “Miss Buncle” books and are looking for a nice comfort read.

Review: Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on AirElizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air

This novel centers around a small group of people working at a radio station in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Harry is a once-promising radio man who has returned to Yellowknife after a disastrous attempt at television. Eleanor, the station’s receptionist, has no life of her own but is keenly observant of the lives of others. Gwen has recently moved to town and is hoping to learn radio production at the station. And newcomer Dido is a natural on-air talent who catalyzes various shifts in the station’s social atmosphere. All these characters have been drawn to Yellowknife for different reasons, but they are united in their fascination and love for the austere beauty of northern Canada. As they develop new friendships, romances, and animosities, they also discuss the history, mythology, and current concerns of the Canadian frontier — especially as a proposed transnational pipeline threatens its very identity.

I picked up this book for its setting, and I think it does a wonderful job of immersing readers in the unique world of the Canadian North. There are lovingly detailed descriptions of weather, scenery, and wildlife; digressive anecdotes about Canadian history, especially the many European explorers who attempted to survive the brutal winters; discussions about the relationship between white settlers and native peoples; and nostalgia for a fading way of life. Hay cleverly uses the debates and hearings surrounding the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline as a framework for her story; the possible destruction of the northern ecosystem parallels the slow destruction of radio as the primary medium for storytelling due to the arrival of television. The novel is somber and contemplative in tone, and the focus is on character and setting much more than on plot. But for anyone interested in books with a unique and vividly described setting, I would definitely recommend this!