It was mere days after I had finished watching the second season of Downton Abbey when I found Below Stairs by Margaret Powell. The book is Powell’s candid memoirs of being a kitchen maid in the 1920′s – think Daisy from Downton.
Below Stairs is something of a legend. The producers of both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey consulted it in order to get the details correct. But what really makes this an AMAZING read is Powell’s honesty and humour. She grew up dirt poor but she was happy. Being a kitchen maid meant never being hungry but cooks and employers were tough.
But Powell is no pushover. She’s as tough as nails and feisty as hell. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:
“I remember when we hadn’t anything left to use for warmth and no money to get coal. I said to Mum, “Get all the wood down. Let’s have a fire with wood.” She took ever single shelf there was in the rooms and she even took the banister from the stairs. Things like this make you hard.”
“It was my job to make the mayonnaise sauce. And what a job it was too. I never thought I’d get it right.”
“I used to think how incongruous it was when the Reverend used to say morning prayers and just before they were over he’d say, “Now let us all count our blessings.” I thought, well it would take a lot longer to count yours than it would ours.“
“A lot of inane remarks from the men and a lot of giggles from us, a few kisses and further promises to be sure to meet them at the same time next week, but neither Gladys nor I had any intention of having permanent dates with such ill-paid escorts.“
Below Stairs is a sure hit for any fans of Downton Abbey and hardcore foodies! As a kitchen maid and cook in the 20′s, Powell makes everything from scratch. From mayonnaise to great stories.(less)
Thank you to Soho Press for sending me a copy of Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See in exchange for an honest review.
I picked up Too Bright To Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey because it was described as a “brilliant look into mental illness” but I felt like it wasn’t so much about mental health as it was about the antics of a Hollywood exec losing control.
Greyson Todd is a studio exec that represents some of the most famous celebs in Hollywood. But between holding the hands of unstable celebrities, Todd can barely keep it together for his own family. His bipolar disorder leads him to leave his family and make some horribly risky decisions around the world. All roads lead back to the psych ward.
Todd’s money-fuelled antics are sometimes fun to read but I’m not entirely sure what the author was trying to achieve. I’m not even sure that there is a lesson to learn or an overarching theme.
I’m also not sure how accurate of an account this is of bipolar disorder. I felt like the novel glamourized the disease. The ending for Todd is sad but it seemed like he had a lot of fun getting there. But maybe that’s the nature of the illness.(less)
Once upon a time, I read Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre and hated it.
It’s his most famous novel but I just didn’t dig it. Too barren, too cold, too confusing. So I let his other novel The Secret Pilgrim gather dust on my shelf.
I’m glad I returned to le Carre because I loved The Secret Pilgrim. The Cold War has ended and a spy named Ned narrates what becomes of the British spy service. The Secret Pilgrim is actually a series of short stories about the agents that have fallen over the years — either turned traitor, had their cover blown or just plain gone missing.
Confession: I finally read this because I became hopelessly addicted to watching Homeland. This article sums up what it’s like to be a fan of this show. It’s a tad obsessive but it makes you want to read and watch anything and everything about spies. But I assure you, The Secret Pilgrim is not just about spies.
PILG_ussrLoyalty is a fickle sport and you get to witness the mental anguish behind betrayal. We’re reminded that when it comes to war (and love, for that matter), there is no real clear divide between the good guys and the bad ones. And when you’re constantly caught between the two, it’s entirely possible to find yourself fighting on the losing side.
Le Carre also makes a political statement at the end of the book. I don’t want to give too much away but it’s a statement that’s very relevant today despite being written in 1990. Different war, same problems.(less)
I thought it’d be really fun to read Andrew Blackwell’s pollution travel book during my one month trip through Asia.
Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places does what it sets out to do. Blackwell chronicles his trips to some of the grossest places of the world that most people don’t want to think about. First stop is Chernobyl, the site of the disastrous nuclear power plant meltdown.
I didn’t love Sunny Chernobyl — in fact, I didn’t even finish it. For one, Blackwell never makes his point. He’s promoting pollution travel but I just couldn’t figure out why. The book doesn’t take on an environmental stance. In places like Chernobyl, he even argues that wilderness is now thriving because all the humans have moved out. But Blackwell makes it very clear that this was a manmade catastrophe for the local ecosystem.
The book confused me but it also didn’t give me enough. I wanted to learn so much more about each of the polluted sights which also includes the Canadian oil sands and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a possibly mythical patch of garbage floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
A while back, I read Stupid to the Last Drop, an in-depth expose of the Canadian oil sands. And I much preferred it over Blackwell’s book. Yes, Sunny Chernobyl is more entertaining and I appreciated the humour but I just wanted Blackwell to take a side.(less)
I remember being glued to Grey’s Anatomy when the show started. There was so much drama and excitement not to mention tons of sex. I still the remember the episode where all the hospital employees caught gonorrhea from each other.
But with so much of the show based on the sexcapades of Dr. McDreamy and his intern, we started to wonder who on Earth was taking care of their patients. And anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in any of Ontario’s public hospitals can think of a million sexier places to get down and dirty in.
Enter Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Vincent Lam is both a novelist and a practicing doctor. This book is the fictitious account of a couple Canadian doctors and their experiences with the rigours of getting into med school, the struggles of dealing with patients and the pain of being a mere mortal.
This is the real life Grey’s Anatomy. There is romance but it’s not hot at the slightest. They do get attached to patients but not because they’re charming. And for all the efforts doctors put into saving lives, they can’t always save themselves.
Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures is a great look at the people behind the white jackets, the clinical jargon and the chicken-scratch prescriptions.
P.S. You may also be interested in TVO’s first original series, Hard Rock Medical. It’s about a medical school on the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario (hence “hard rock”). The synopsis promises a rampaging moose episode.(less)
I recently found myself at the neighbourhood Heroes World looking at graphic novels with a friend. Past all the Walking Dead comics was Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s Incognito.
Incognito is different from what I know of comics (disclaimer: I know nothing about comics) — it’s more than just action. It’s a dark and hilarious story. The characters are bitterly sarcastic. It’s everything you want after a long day at work.
Zack Overkill was once a super villain but he’s had his villainous tendencies drugged out of him by the FBI and has been placed under the Witness Protection program. Part of his disguise is that he has to hold a boring office job. The boredom drives Overkill to start using drugs but then his villainous super strength starts coming back… and he starts helping people like Spiderman for shits and giggles.
The story gets crazier from there. I’ve already bought the next one in the series, Incognito Volume 2: Bad Influences.
Thank you to Penguin for sending me a copy of Out of the Easy in exchange for an honest review.
I meant to read Out of the Easy sooner after receiving it in my swag bag at last year’s Ontario Book Bloggers Meet-Up but I ended up moving, traveling and changing jobs — which completely derailed all my reading and blogging plans.
But I’m really glad I finally read Ruta Septys’ Out of the Easy. Based in 1950′s New Orleans, Josie Moraine is a teenager hoping to get into college. Her mother is a prostitute at a whore house run by a tough lady named Willie. Josie opts out of her mother’s lifestyle by working at a bookstore — but the temptation of easy money follows her every move.
This is a fun YA-novel with a cast of colourful characters. Josie is fantastically strong and weak at all the right times. Willie is wise beyond her years. Love interest Patrick starts off boring but ends up somewhat interesting. Love interest no. 2 Jesse starts off interesting but ends up boring. Cokie delivers some hilarious lines but Josie’s nut job mother has a few of her own. I loved the mentions of voodoo folklore like the black hand — which I only knew about from playing Monkey Island.
The first few chapters in, I rolled my eyes a little bit because it seemed so unrealistic: A prostitute’s daughter with a heart of gold that has helpers all over the town watching her back. Pretty unlikely story but in the end, it was just fun to see who she’d run into next. My only real disappointment was the ending. Nothing really wrapped up. It’s as if Sepetys was already thinking about a second book…
I recommend Out of the Easy to fans of The Virgin Cure, Parlor Games and Scorpio Races. Oh and Chanel Bonfire if you enjoy bad and beautiful mothers.
One of my favourite things about Denise Chong’s writing is her ability to slowly and steadily roll out a great story. She’s no amateur in the sport of writing and it continues to show in The Lives of the Family.
This is a non-fictional account of the lives of Chinese immigrants who settled in small town Canada during the early 1900′s. Most of these immigrants opened up restaurants and cleaners to make a living.
The Lives of the Family is also a tear-jerker as families are ripped apart again, again thanks to immigration, war and revolution. Once in Canada, the families face personal losses, financial burdens and of course, discrimination.
I was really impressed by how many stories Denise was able to squeeze into this relatively short book (222 pages!). And yet, I wasn’t left wanting more — she covers just enough details to leave you feeling like you personally know the families.
Sometimes non-fiction likes to skimp on details to make it easy digestible for all readers — but what I love about Denise’s writing is that she always does the people in her stories justice. She gives them the respect and attention they deserve and as readers, we understand their perspective so much more.
I’ve been meaning to read Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh ever since watching the Stephen Fry directed Bright Young Things. The movie was based on Waugh’s novel that satirizes all the ridiculous partying that rich kids did in the 1920′s. I loved everything and laughed out loud while reading certain passages.
Just as moralists are condemning celebrities like Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan for partying way too hard, it’s important to remind ourselves the this has always happened. Vile Bodies serves to remind us that it’s not moral decay at all because we’ve been rotten for a long time.
The story is based around an aspiring writer named Adam Fenwick-Symes and his fiancee, Nina Blount. The two make their rounds to parties all over London and get into all sorts of trouble with a star-studded cast. Their pending marriage is a bit of a joke and well, everything’s a bit of joke.
What really makes this fantastically HILARIOUS is the sarcastic narrator that adds humour to the most unfortunate and inconvenient details. It’s the Evelyn Waugh we know and love (or hate).
I also loved the media circus where tabloids wrote up / made up every move these young aristobrats made at each party. There’s a chapter where the PM’s daughter wakes up to discover her previous night’s activities are front-page tabloid news. And to think, there wasn’t even Facebook back then!(less)
Public opinion of banks have seen better days. In fact, 55 per cent of Americans said they had little or no respect for the banking sector in 2011. It’s no wonder that the Occupy Movement gained so much momentum.
That is to say that J.R. Moehringer’s bank robbing anti-hero is incredibly relevant to the times. Sutton is an entertaining read. It’s fast paced and full of surprises. Recently published paperback, Sutton is a light read fit for your next summer vacation.
This is the fictional story of Willie Sutton, a real life bank robber during the depression era. Every time the stock market tumbles, Willie finds himself out of a work. Hungry and desperate, he finds solace in the art of robbing banks. The banks hate him but the people (55 per cent and counting) love him.
The thing about Sutton is that he’s pretty darn loveable. There’s a calm pace to the book even as everything around Sutton is falling apart. Willie makes for a slow and wise narrator who reminds us that history is constantly repeating itself.
Willie has an old-world charm even if he’s just full of his old tricks. Moehringer leads you to believe that he is a Robin Hood of sorts but a series of twists have you questioning if Willie’s managed to fool you too.(less)
Thank you to Doubleday for sending me an advanced reading copy of Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio in exchange for an hone...moreReview from brokenpenguins.com
Thank you to Doubleday for sending me an advanced reading copy of Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio in exchange for an honest review.
What can I say about Maryka Biaggio’s Parlor Games? It’s fun, carefree and most importantly, it’s utterly scandalous. Parlor Games is a whirlwind memoir of May Dugas’ adventures around the world. Based on a true story, May Dugas is part con artist, part whore and mostly genius.
She befriends aristocratic men in exchange for money, diamonds and fancy trips around the world. Born in a small town to a poor family, it’s all May can do if she wants to see the world and live life like a baller. People get hurt but May mostly cares about May’s needs so when things get bad, May gets out.
And it’s mostly because of a certain Pinkerton Agency spy who repeatedly spoils May’s plans and outs her for being the conscience-free scam artist she really is. Talk about kill-joy.
Based at the turn of the 19th century, May starts the story off by telling you about how a woman named Frank is suing her. May isn’t the least bit remorseful and at the end of the day; there are no hard lessons learned here. But May’s charm and joie de vivre will have you forgetting her wrongs.
I highly recommend Parlour Games to those who enjoy Downton Abbey, The American Heiress and The Virgin Cure. There are moments of grief but it’s hard to believe someone like May Dugas would let anything stand in her way of having a whole lot of fun.(less)
“Who controls what you buy?” may seem like an easy question. But master marketer Martin Lindstrom provides an answer that spans over 200 pages in his second book, Brandwashed.
At first glance, of course I control what I buy. I see it in the store, put in my basket and pay for it with my own money.
Brandwashed says that’s garbage because marketers have thought long and hard about what makes us want to buy in the first place. He gives examples of how brands use our natural psychological wirings to manipulate us into thinking that we need to buy their products.
It’s all one big conspiracy to get you to buy. And just when you stop believing him, he pulls out the oodles and oodles of market research paid for by brands. Lindstrom knows this because he did the research. I was especially impressed by Axe’s efforts to find out who would be the target audience for their trademark douchebag spray. Of course, it wasn’t always known as a spray for 14-year-old boys but that’s part of the story.
I’d be interested in hear what he has to say about Abercrombie & Fitch’s strategy of revealing their strategy. As consumers, we’re comfortable buying into a lifestyle semi-consciously but does it work when it’s not so subtle? It’s as if Rolex were to put out an ad that read “Rich people wear our watches.” Every ad implies this but it’s never the tagline.
Brandwashed was a little hard to get into. I like my non-fiction to read like fiction where there’s a storyline that ties everything together. Brandwashed jumps around a lot and revisits previous concepts at unlikely times. However, the research tidbits are gold for anyone that buys or sells stuff. Because for those that have watched The Devil Wears Prada, it’s not just stuff.(less)
The Starboard Sea reminds you that growing up is hard
Thanks to Netgalley and St. Martins Press for sending me a copy of The Starboard Sea by Amber Der...moreThe Starboard Sea reminds you that growing up is hard
Thanks to Netgalley and St. Martins Press for sending me a copy of The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont. The Starboard Sea is available on February 28th!
The Starboard Sea sets you up for heartbreak. It really does. It makes you fall in love with a boy named Jason Prospect, a rich kid who has been kicked out of his fancy prep school for cheating on a calculus test. Yeah, I know, calculus broke my heart too. It makes you fall in love with the sport of sailing and the setting of the beautiful, yet dangerous ocean. And then, Dermont takes it all away. With a string of words, Dermont will “kill everything beautiful” for the reader in this world.
Jason's self-involved family barely seems to notice that this act of cheating is a desperate call for help after Jason finds his best friend has committed suicide. Instead, he is enrolled in Bellinghem, the prep school of second chances. Everyone at Bellinghem has screwed up elsewhere and not surprisingly, the school is lax on the rules. It's here that Jason has to grow up fast and it's here that things ultimately get harder for him too.
It's hard not to compare The Starboard Sea to Catcher in the Rye. There are very similar themes and similar characters. But while Holden Caulfield is more angry and Jason Prospect is more sad, they both share a common loneliness. I especially love how Dermont uses the language around sailing and sea navigation to describe growing up. You spend most of novel slowly learning more about the best friend's suicide and in the end, only some of the questions get answered. I loved the open-endedness of the ending. If the name “Jason Prospect” is any hint, there is also much hope in this story.
I think if it weren't for some of the harder subjects in this book (suicide, homosexuality), The Starboard Sea would have fit into the young adult genre. I recommend this one to anyone loves a good tear-jerker like Catcher in the Rye or to anyone that wants to remember that growing up is a wonderful journey but it isn't all rainbows and butterflies. (less)