Best of Five!

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsThis period’s Best Book is The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng!


Day 1185: Landscape in Sunlight

Cover for Landscape in SunlightMrs. Custance, the vicar’s wife, is planning the annual church fête, but she is also wondering what will happen to her daughter. Cassie is currently tutoring Leonard Templar, but Mrs. Custance knows she is contemplating taking a caravan with her bouncing friend Joan and perhaps working at Joan’s school. Mrs. Custance once hoped that Cassie would marry George Brigham, Cassie’s childhood friend, but after the war George got engaged to an Italian countess. The engagement was short-lived, but Mrs. Custance has never forgiven George. George’s father, Sir James, also complains that George is an unsatisfactory son.

George has done nothing worse than go into partnership with a tradesman. Any income in the house belongs to him, but it’s not keeping the house from going to bits under the care of two lazy old servants.

In the meantime, Eustace Templar is trying to think of a way to get the Midges out of Prospect Cottage, his rental home. Eustace thinks it is the perfect home for his brother-in-law, Colonel Ashford, if only the Midges could be persuaded to move.

Landscape in Sunlight is another enjoyable domestic comedy by Elizabeth Fair. It follows the village people through their everyday lives, with just a touch of romance.

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Time for Another Classics Club Spin

Classics Club announced its 17th spin on Thursday. If you want to participate, you must post a list of 20 books from your Classics Club list by March 9. The spin will select a number corresponding to one of those books, which they challenge you to read and post a review by the end of April. Here is my list of 20 books:

  1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  2. August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  3. La Morte D’arthur by Thomas Malory
  4. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  6. I Go by Land, I Go by Sea by P. L. Travers
  7. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  8. Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  9. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
  10. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
  11. Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame
  12. The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins
  13. Mary Lavelle by Kate O’Brien
  14. The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollet
  15. Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn
  16. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  17. Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton
  18. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
  19. The Viscounte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  20. The Heir of Redclyff by Charlotte M. Yonge

There are lots of books on this list that I know nothing about, and only three that I have read before, so it should be an exciting spin.


Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsYun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 1183: The Widow’s House

Cover for The Widow's HouseI haven’t read a creepy book in a while, and The Widow’s House is a good one. It is also a complex story where nothing is what it seems.

When she went away to college, Clare Martin moved away from her home in the Hudson Valley and hoped she would never return. She and her husband, Jess, moved to New York with aspirations to be writers, and ten years ago, Jess wrote a critically acclaimed novel. However, another one was not forthcoming, and for the past three years, Clare has been supporting them by taking editing work. They are badly in debt.

Jess suggests they move back into the country with the money from selling their loft apartment, leaving both of them time to write. He has a fancy to live in the same area where Clare grew up. When they go to look at houses, however, most of them are out of their price range.

Their realtor, Katrine Vanderberg, has an idea. Another writer is looking for a couple to occupy the caretaker’s house on his property. The rent would be free in exchange for some help around the property. The main house is River House, a beautiful but neglected octagonal mansion that is said to be haunted. The owner is Alden Montague, or Monty, the writer, who just happens to be the Martins’ old writing professor, and he is glad to have them.

Shortly before the move, Clare finds out that Jess turned down a teaching job at a college near their apartment, an opportunity that would have allowed them to stay in New York, without even discussing it with her. She is so upset by that, and what she thinks is his philandering, that she prepares to leave him soon after the move. But his behavior makes her change her mind.

The main house is supposedly haunted by a woman who had a child by the owner of the house. One stormy night she left the child on the doorstep of the house and drowned herself in the pond. The child was found dead. Clare was fascinated enough by this local story to have written about it in college, and now she decides to write a novel about it.

But almost upon her arrival in the house, she sees the woman standing near the pond and hears a baby crying at night. Clare has a history of psychic experiences and decides the house is haunted. When the caretaker’s cottage is destroyed in a flood, she and Jess move in with Monty.

Early in the novel I suspected gaslighting. I won’t say if I was right, but there are layers upon layers to this novel. It is a well written, suspenseful, spook fest. I had to keep reading it until late in the night once I got started.

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Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for The Ten Thousand ThingsLast week I posted my last review of the shortlisted books for the 2015 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize. That means it’s time for this feature, where I give my opinion about whether the judges got it right.

The shortlist for 2015 is a tough one to like. There were seven books on the shortlist, but for various reasons, four of them just didn’t float my boat at all: Zone of Interest by Martin Amis, In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds, Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut, and A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie.

Cover for Viper WineOf the other three nominations, Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre is the most inventive in approach and is well grounded in its historical background. Looking back at my review, I think I enjoyed it more than I remembered. The Ten Thousand Things, that year’s winner by John Spurling, is probably the book that most qualifies as literary fiction, and it certainly conveys both a historical context and a sense of time and place. It had such a detached viewpoint, however, that I was never fully engaged with it. For me, The Lie by Helen Dunmore was the most engaging, but of these three, it conveyed the least about its historical time. So, for this year’s prize, taking into consideration both how involving the book was and its reflection of its time and place, I guess I would have picked Viper Wine, with a plus for its wildly inventive approach.