Book Review: What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal

What was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal

Zoe Heller

Picador

258 pages

I’ve heard about this novel for ages, as it was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago, but I never gave it a second glance until I read about it in Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree (which I gushed about here).

The book is written by an elderly schoolteacher named Barbara who has befriended, and is caring for, a middleaged woman named Bathsheba “Sheba” Hart.  Sheba had started teaching pottery at the same school where Barbara had taught for many years and after only a few months, she began a torrid love affair with a fifteen year old student.  Sheba has a husband and two children and she is completely cognizant of the trouble she would be in were the affair discovered, but she throws caution to the wind, and beforre she knows it, she is in over her head.

The relationship between Sheba and the student, (Steven) Connolly is so realistically unbelievable.  Sheba’s behavior is hard to grasp; she is completely sucked in by the affair, and it is hard to understand what could be so attractive about a fifteen year old boy.  But I believed it.  I couldn’t fathom her conduct but I could certainly sympathize with her, which I didn’t anticipate when the book began.

I was very impressed with Heller’s knack for character development.  She really nailed it, and due to that, I was invested in the novel.  Barbara, the protagonist, especially impressed me.  I wouldn’t normally be so interested in a spinster woman with a touch of bitterness.  Barbara is unable to form any meaningful relationships, and she tends to be more of a loner.  Her attitude tends to be too forceful and polarizing, but once she forges a relationship with Sheba, she is able to find an outlet for her loneliness.

Last week, I suggested this book as the next choice for my real life bookclub.  I think it will offer a great forum for discussion and I am anxious to see what the reception will be.  I downloaded a sample of The Believers for my kindle; the plot doesn’t interest me as much but if it is even a fraction as good as Notes on a Scandal, i am sure I will enjoy it.

Other Reviews:

The Zen Leaf

another cookie crumbles

I purchased this book for my kindle.

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Book Review: The Beautiful Cigar Girl

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder

Daniel Stashower

Berkley Trade

400 pages

We all know the old adage Sex Sells.  This was embodied by Mary Rogers, a young girl in 1840s New York who worked at a cigar store in an effort to lure men into the shop.  Somewhat innocent, Mary had grown up in a more comfortable home, but once her father died, she and her mother lost their social status and they were forced to move to New York, where Mary’s mother opened a boardinghouse.  Eventually, Mary was able to quit her job as the “cigar girl”, but the image followed her.

Then, one morning, everything changes.  Mary tells her fiance she is going to visit an aunt, but she never returns.  Only a few days later, her dead body is found and it is apparent that she has been brutally murdered.  The mystery surrounding Mary’s death intrigues the whole city, and Edgar Allan Poe is sucked into its vortex.

Crime fiction is just making its debut, with the likes of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens cashing in on the popularity.  Poe isn’t having the best of luck in his literary endeavors, but he was then inspired to create his fictional detective C Auguste Dupin, who appeared in Poe’s story The Mystery of Marie Roget, which was based on the murder of Mary Rogers.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl was also part biography of Poe.  Although I have read quite a bit of Poe throughout the years, and knew the basics surrounding his tragic, untimely death, I really didn’t know much about him.  And let’s be honest–his life is one of great misery and drama.  Not a fun life to lead but certainly an interesting one to read about.

One issue I did have with the book is that there was not really any resolution.  The death of Mary Rogers has never been conclusively “solved”.  Although there are many theories as to who or what killed her, we don’t know what really happened.  I usually don’t mind ambiguous endings but in this type of situation, I want to know who the guilty party is!

Despite my gripe, The Beautiful Cigar Girl was an intriguing look at life in New York in the mid 19th century, not to mention a good resource on the invention of detective fiction.

Other Reviews:

None that I could find.

I purchased this book from Half Price Books.

The Sunday Salon: 5/14/2011

Happy (almost) Sunday everyone! I know I am a day early, but we are leaving bright and early tomorrow morning for Naples, FL, so I won’t have the opportunity (nor the inclination!) to post.

Since my last Sunday Salon, I finished When Will There Be Good News, by Kate Atkinson.  I really did not like it at first, and I almost put it down for good a few times.  The writing seemed amateurish to me, as did the characters, most of which irritated me.  I wouldn’t necessarily say the writing got better, but the story got a lot better and that sucked me in.  I am not sure whether I will read more by Atkinson though.

I also read Lady Susan, by Jane Austen, for the Classics Circuit Austen vs Dickens.  I absolutely loved it.  Lady Susan was one of the best villains I have read in a long time.  I now want to reread Austen’s six novels, all of which I love, with the exception of Sense & Sensibility.

Lastly, I have about 60 pages left of Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford.  I definitely plan on finishing it before vacation, so I can start fresh! This book has quite a political leaning, which made me nervous, but it definitely doesn’t get in the way of the story.  I have yet to read something by Mitford that I didn’t love, and this is no exception!

I hope you all have a great weekend!

Book Review: The Polysyllabic Spree

The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle with the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Meaning to Read

Nick Hornby

McSweeney’s, Believer Books

184 pages

So this is supposed to be about the how, and when, and why, and what of reading–about the way that, when reading is going well, one book leads to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning; and how, when it’s going badly, when books don’t stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you’d rather do anything but attempt the next paragraph, or reread the last one for the tenth time.

Oh-Em-Gee.  Where has this book been all my life?!  I admit, I had heard of it plenty of times but had absolutely no idea what it was about.  Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was having a bookish discussion with my boss.  She mentioned Hornby as one of her favorite authors and I admitted I hadn’t been too impressed with what I had read of his.  She asked what exactly I had read, and when I told her (Slam, A Long Way Down, and How to be Good), she told me I hadn’t gotten to his good stuff yet.  Then she told me about this book.

The Polysyllabic Spree is a compilation of Hornby’s columns for the British magazine The Believer.  The format starts off with two columns–to the left are the books he bought the previous month, and to the right are the books he read the previous month.  I am guessing it is something most (all) book bloggers can appreciate; the books we buy are not necessarily the books we read, and some months we can go a bit overboard with the books we acquire.  The majority of the column is Hornby discussing the books he read.

His wit is phenomenal; I was busting with mirth for most of the book. Not to mention that I could relate to pretty much everything he was saying, even if the specific books he was discussing weren’t my cup of tea.  His first ground rule, set out in column #1, is as follows.

I don’t want anyone writing in to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read.  I know that already.  I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less.  My intentions are good.  Anyway, it’s my money.  And I’ll bet you do it too.

Can’t argue with that logic, could you.  I tore through this book so fast, it’d make your head spin.  And then I immediately ordered the other two books of his columns, which will hopefully get here in time for my vacation! Now I am off to check out The Believer to see whether it is as good as I suspect.

Other Reviews:

Books and Movies

Erin Reads

Life is a Patchwork Quilt

things mean a lot

I purchased this book from Borders.

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

Kate Summerscale

Walker & Company

384 pages

Crime detecting is in its infancy, and Jack Whicher is one of the detective inspectors for Scotland’s Yard.  Somewhat of a rogue, he is in his prime and has a real knack for uncovering even the smallest clues and details.  Then a crime takes place that changes the course of his career forever.

Road Hill House is the estate of the Kent family.  Mr Kent is a factory inspector with a new, younger (pregnant) wife.  They have two young children, as well as Mr Kent’s four older children from his first marriage, who live in the home as well.  Add to that numerous servants and you have quite a full house.

I somehow went into this book not realizing who was going to be slain, so I will keep that a secret, despite the fact that it happens early on and is pretty easy to deduce before it happens.  The house had obviously not been broken into, so it becomes evident that someone in the home had committed the crime.  The local police and townspeople have one theory as to who is the killer, and then Mr Whicher is called in.  After surveying the scene and taking statements from members of the household, he becomes confident that he has discovered the murderer.  Unfortunately, no one is buying his theory, and eventually he is ostracized for his determination.  His career never recovers, and the glory days he once knew are over.

I love books like this–fictionalized true crime.  Add the fact that it is a Victorian era crime and you have me completely hooked.  I loved this book.  I wasn’t sure what to believe, and Whicher didn’t have me sold.  Crime solving is so different these days, with modern technology and forensics, so the case Whicher was building didn’t seem strong enough.  Obviously back then, you were going more on circumstantial evidence, as that is all there was.  Possibly I just didn’t want to believe that his suspect could be guilty either–if you’ve read the book, I think you know what I mean.  Who could do such a thing?

I wish there were more books out there like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.  If you’ve read it, did you enjoy it as much as I did?

Book Reviews:

My Cozy Book Nook

Caribous Mom

chasing bawa

things mean a lot

You’ve GOTTA Read This!

I purchased this book for my kindle.

Classics Circuit: Lady Susan

Welcome to the Classics Circuit, Austen vs Dickens! To be fair, I should have chosen to read some Dickens, as I have only ever read A Tale of Two Cities and I hated it.  Since then, I have been fearful of Dickens.  So I took the easy way out and chose Austen, who I already know and love.

I have read Austen’s prolific six novels, which I will now list in order from favorite to least favorite, for fun!

1. Emma

2. Mansfield Park

3. Pride and Prejudice

4. Northanger Abbey

5. Persuasion

6. Sense and Sensibility

All of them are deserving of a reread right about now, especially S&S, since it’s the only Austen I really didn’t enjoy. But I digress . . . onto Lady Susan.

Lady Susan Vernon is quite the villain.  She is recently widowed and the mother of a teenage girl, Federica, and she has been traveling between the homes of friends and family. Drama certainly follows her wherever she goes; the word manipulative would be the best way to describe her.  Lady Susan thrives on flirting with men and deceiving them into believing that she is a sweet, sensitive woman.  Men fall for her guise immediately, but the other women in the novel seem to figure her out fairly quickly, adding to even more friction.

Lady Susan is written in an epistolary format, which I have a weakness for, and it did not disappoint here.  I thought the format worked extremely well, and I especially loved the fact that Lady Susan did not hold back at all when writing to her friend, Mrs Johnson.  To say she had absolutely no scruples would be an understatement–Lady Susan had no issues with laying out her malicious intent, and she was unflinchingly honest when speaking with her friend.

If you’re a fan of Austen but haven’t yet read any of her lesser known works, I would highly recommend Lady Susan.  It will not disappoint.

The Sunday Salon; 5/8/2011

I can’t believe it is Sunday already–the week has flown by.  It’s hard to believe that a week from now I will be in Florida.  I am getting my reading list together.  So far, I have purchased two books for my trip; Affinity, by Sarah Waters and The Truth-teller’s Lie, by Sophie Hannah.  I really want to buy Housekeeping vs The Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote for Money, both by Nick Hornby. Plus, I plan on taking my Kindle, so I can pretty much download and read anything. What do you think of my selection so far?

This week I finished one book and read another.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl was part biography of Edgar Allan Poe and part true crime about the murder of a young girl named Mary Rogers, who ended up influencing Poe as far as his writing was concerned. I found it very engrossing and educational but it was a bit slow, as books of that nature usually tend to be.

What was she Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller is about a woman who begins a sexual relationship with one of her 15 year old students.  It was wonderful. I could.not.put.it.down.  Definitely one of the best books I have read this year.

I am now reading When Will There be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson.  It is my first book by her and I have to admit, I contemplated putting it down for the first 50-60 pages.  It just seemed really juvenile and I couldn’t get into any of the characters, but now it has started picking up and I think I am going to end up enjoying it.

Lastly, happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there! I received my first Mother’s Day gift ever on Friday.  My stepdaughter made me a little potted plant and I swear, I felt so honored that she thought to make me something.  Being a stepmom can be tough, but also very rewarding, and I feel lucky to have Ally in my life.

I hope everyone has a wonderful day and week!