Review – Ashenden

AshendenAshenden is an old, yet still grand, English country house. Falling into disrepair over the years, it can still impress, even if it’s just by the enormous cash reserves needed to heat the place. When Charlie and his sister inherit the crumbling estate, the stress of how to care for the place takes a toll on their already distant relationship. The two begin consulting engineers and surveyors to determine what needs to be done and whether or not selling or renovating is in their best interests, or the house’s.

While a decision is made about the house’s future, its past begins to unfold giving the reader a glimpse of the people it has sheltered, the sorrows and joys felt in its rooms, and the memories that have seeped into its walls. We are introduced to the people that have walked the halls of the house from the architect who envisioned the grand space, to the staff who kept the fires burning, and the families that owned the property.

What I enjoyed about this book was the way all of the stories were tied together, each flowing smoothly into the next. It wasn’t about the people but how the house was transformed by the years from a money pit that was wanted more for the prestige it bought, but was ultimately unaffordable, to the original builder, the individuals that toured the house, and the sick it protected. The people come and go but the house itself is the one constant that brings everything together.

Ashenden is a mixture of short stories about the people that admired the grand house, found love and heartbreak inside its walls, and those that recovered in the green expanse that was part of the property. Its residents, owners, builders, all make and break the house and while the reader sees the past, it’s the current owners that are struggling with the future. I liked the way Wilhide smoothly moves the story along while it remains in place at the same time. It’s a very effective way to tell the story of the house and make it more than simply a structure of bricks, glass, and wood. It becomes a living part of the story, in fact, the story itself. With each new chapter, I wanted to know how it was holding up and what it had become in its new reincarnation as it does change with each new generation that walks through the doors. From the start, you know it’s not a simple home but something built and imagined to be more than that.

Many of the stories told here are very sad but overall I wouldn’t say that about the book. It made me smile many times, and even though the individual stories being told were not on the whole always happy, it was an honest look at the people who passed through the halls and that I could appreciate — nothing too sad but not all that happy either, a nice equilibrium of stories.

Wilhide is a writer who cares very much about the details and it is those details that make this story. Without the finer points and the clear image she creates of the house, this story wouldn’t work. The particulars create an invisible web that lets the story meander, but always bringing it back home. It’s such a lovely story and a satisfying read for a winter evening.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Ashenden

By Elizabeth Wilhide

Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 9781451684865

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Review – The History of Us

The History of UsThere’s that saying that you can’t pick your family. You know the one and have probably marveled at its truthfulness at one family event or another over the years. You know, when that weird cousin brings a stripper to a wedding and no one can stop staring.* Anyway, that’s sort of the point of The History of Us. It’s all about family, and all the great and annoying qualities you wouldn’t trade for the world mostly because those defining moments in life become great blog fodder. Yes, that.

Eloise Hemple is a newly minted college professor when she receives a call informing her that her sister and brother-in-law have died in an accident. She rushes home and somehow never leaves; staying to raise children that aren’t hers but children she can’t live without — the only part of her sister she has left. Life veers into the unfamiliar and instead of writing well-received research papers on her topic of choice, she’s struggling to pay the heating bills, ballet lessons, and save for college for three children that were not part of the future she imaged, and so carefully planned, for herself.

I wanted to feel sorry for Eloise but I couldn’t because she wouldn’t let you. She knew from the moment she took that call that her life would never be what she thought, and hoped, it would be. Her three children (and they are her children), Theo, Josh, and Claire, are a different story though. Her niece Theo is a self-righteous, annoying person who thinks she’s been slighted her whole life. Yes, she lost parents but Eloise went out of her way to ensure she never lacked for anything giving up any hope of a life she might have had for Theo’s sake. When Eloise finally starts to want a life of her own after raising the three siblings, Theo balks and does everything she can to blame her for any bit of unhappiness she feels or has ever felt. Josh, well, he copes like he always does. Claire throws every plan on its head with a decision no one saw coming. All in all, life in most families.

There are the ones you feel sad for, the ones you get annoyed by, and the ones you just like no matter what. Stewart manages all the personalities well and doesn’t let you like or dislike anyone of these characters too much. It’s a heartwarming story and if you happen to like family drama, I’d give this one a try. You’ll be annoyed, you’ll possibly want to yell at a character or two, then you’ll finish the book, grab a glass of wine and head back in that room with your family knowing it will all work out somehow. Or at the very least, you’ll come out of it with a story to tell.

* Stripper at wedding is a true family story. I kid you not.

The History of Us

By Leah Stewart

Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 9781451672626

Review – The Map of Lost Memories

Irene Blum has spent her life studying the Khmer Empire and acquiring knowledge of ancient civilizations and artifacts. She’s an expert in her field and fully expects to be running the Brooke Museum of Oriental Arts in Seattle, which houses a collection she helped to build, in due time. When the curatorship is given to another, it devastates her. Still reeling from the death of her father a few months earlier, she turns to Henry Simms, a close family friend and the man who helped raise her after the death of her mother. He is also the person who instilled in her the intense interest she has in the Khmer Empire. Mr. Simms is dying of cancer, and knowing it will be the last great adventure of his life and the start of one for Irene, he shares an unknown diary with her that talks about lost copper scrolls containing the history of the Khmer. The scrolls are supposedly hidden in an ancient Khmer temple in the Cambodian jungle. With nothing left for her in Seattle, Irene leaves for Shanghai to convince a woman named Simone Merlin to join her on the trip to Cambodia. Both women have much to prove — to each other and themselves — and the trip to discover the lost scrolls becomes a test of wills.

While the big draw for me was the setting, Shanghai and the Cambodian jungle in 1925, it was the characters that surprised me. Everyone has secrets so deeply ingrained it drug them all down and each and every character fought out of desperation; each not wanting to admit being wrong or to give in. The setting amplified every single flaw these characters carried.

Irene and Simone are bound together in horrific ways that neither woman wants to think about — murder, drugs, and a personal history neither knew existed until Irene found Simone in Shanghai. Their interactions are sometimes painful to witness but that’s what I enjoyed so much about this particular relationship. In 1925, two women struggling to be more than what society has deemed appropriate was great to see. Their efforts to regain some sense of themselves, understand their dreams, and deal with how those dreams have changed made for notable characters.

The Map of Lost Memories is full of mystery and suspense — some of it brought on in the course of the discovery of an archeological gem in the jungle and at other times it’s complete human folly. I adored the mixture. I feel like I’ve skipped the brilliant setting in favor of discussing some flawed but captivating characters. The setting and the discovery of an ancient Khmer temple deep in the Cambodian jungle was what made me want to read this book and it turned out to be a book full of characters looking for and waiting for redemption in different forms.

Historical fiction is a favorite of mine and the thing that keeps me reading this genre are books that make me want to know more about an event, a person, or discovery after I finish the book. This book did just that. I found myself wanting to know more about the Khmer Empire and the forgotten temples covered by moss and vines.

A setting that’s fascinating, thrilling, and dangerous, and characters that are in turn annoying and absorbing with strong personalities but are flawed and human. Together these elements made it difficult for me to put this book down. Fay obviously has a love for Asian culture and history. If she decides to write more books with this setting, I’ll be reading.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Map of Lost Memories

Kim Fay

Ballantine Books

ISBN: 9780345531346

4 stars

 

Review – Blood, Bones & Butter

This book has been on my radar for a while but I never quite got around to it for no other reason than I just didn’t. This happens to me sometimes. So, when it arrived in the mail it was fate, I guess.

Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef but not one that’s been classically trained; in fact, you can probably argue that she hasn’t really been trained at all. Her mother, a woman of French decent, instilled in her a love of all food and the ability to cook it. Up until the age of 12, she had an ideal life growing up in a rural area of Pennsylvania punctuated by summer blowout parties and family memories. When her parents decide to divorce, she ends up taking care of herself and finding it not so easy a project. She’s smart but barely finishes high school. She is able to work but can’t seem to hold down a job without getting in trouble. And even though she manages to get into college, she can’t manage to stay there. She takes on catering jobs in all the places she lands, and along the way, realizes this is what she knows, what she can do, and what she wants to do. She wants to feed people and share her food experiences with them.

I was skeptical at first — really the first chapter of this book is setup so sweet that you’re pretty sure she was walking around with rainbows streaming out of her ass. That might sound harsh, but I put this one down a few times only a few pages in wondering exactly what was going on. No one’s life is like that and then it all came to a crashing halt, and not that I felt better, but it felt like a better book. Hamilton is a trained writer, MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, so she knows the tricks and she used them in that first chapter. My favorite parts were the rougher ones though. When she moves to New York for college she takes a job as a waitress and then gets on the night shift where she finds she can make a ton of money. When she ends up in trouble, legal this time, her brother pulls in a few favors to get her out and you see where all of this might go.

The best parts of this book have to do with her time in Italy. Hamilton marries an Italian professor in need of wife to stay in the country, and for whatever reason, she marries him (there is talk of several girlfriends in this book but her sexuality is not explicitly talked about and I don’t feel the need to address it here either other than note this for the sake of non-confusion) and accompanies him back home to Italy every year. She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know his family at all, but manages to find a place in the kitchen and share her love of food with people she doesn’t know but very much wants to. I didn’t necessarily relate to the family issues though; for me it was the food. We went to Italy on our honeymoon and there are still dishes that I remember so fondly, and yes, I’m sure my recollection is cloudy with wine and love but I wanted to go to those places all over again.

Hamilton is a good writer and she’s able to capture something that we all have memories of, in one way or another, and elevate them to something you want to know more about. Yes, I looked up her restaurant in New York to see what was on the menu because I wondered what a writer talking about food was actually cooking.

I don’t read memoirs, generally, but when I do I tend to prefer ones dealing with food because I think I can relate. I’ve never had aspirations of being a chef, and frankly after watching too many food shows, know I would never be able to even think about it. But this book did make think about food differently and the way it’s intertwined with our lives. This book is not always about cooking and food. In some ways, that comes later to this author, but it’s an interesting look in on a life definitely lived.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

By Gabrielle Hamilton

Random House
ISBN: 9780812980882

3.5 stars