What Janine is Reading in Spring 2018
Remedial Rocket Science by Susannah Nix
I picked up this book when it was available for free, and since I’d heard good things about it, I actually read it, unlike with some freebies that merely clutter my kindle.
The blurb describes Remedial Rocket Science as a romantic comedy, with comparisons to Penny Reid and Jennifer Crusie, and there was some humor to it. But the plot is closer to that of a chick lit novel, albeit with a lot more emphasis on the romantic feelings.
The characters meet cute in a bar in Boston while still in college (this is not a college-set romance–most of the story takes place three years later). Jeremy rescues Melody from a pick-up artist, and then they end up hanging out, hitting it off, and hooking up for one night (the two sex scenes in this book are both fade-to-black). The sex is terrific, but Jeremy won’t be staying in Boston, though he asks Melody to call him if she’s ever in LA.
Three years later, Melody has a job interview in Los Angeles and they get together for coffee. They really click once again, but Jeremy tells her he has a girlfriend. Eventually he introduces her to Lacey, his girlfriend, and she discovers that he used to date Lacey’s sister, Charlotte, and that Charlotte was his girlfriend when he and Melody hooked up in Boston.
Needless to stay, Melody is steamed at Jeremy for making her a party to cheating. But by this point in the story, she has accepted the job in LA, which turns out to be with a company Jeremy not only works for but that his family owns.
Run-ins are inevitable, and eventually they become friendly again, after Jeremy provides a shoulder to cry on when Melody desperately needs a friend. But they are strictly, only friends, Melody insists to herself. Throughout most of the book, they are friends, even after Jeremy is single again. Thus, this is a true friends-to-lovers story.
This was an enjoyable book to read and I liked Melody a whole lot. She was honest, funny, hard-working, a good friend to Lacey, but a bit confused where Jeremy was concerned. Jeremy gave her some mixed signals and since the book is solely in Melody’s POV, I had to guess at what was going on with him, but I always knew where I stood with her.
While I liked Jeremy, I was never 100% convinced that he really was a great match for Melody (it was more evident that she was great for him). At social gatherings, he put on a charming but fake smile, and he knew how to make anyone feel they were the sole focus of his attention. Between his slickness, his past cheating on Charlotte, and his privileged background (whereas Melody had to work hard for everything she had), I was left with one or two niggles about him.
Still, this was a fun book to read and I especially liked how Melody’s friendship with Lacey and her adjustment to living in LA was portrayed. Because of the early focus on Melody’s career, I would have liked to see her doing her job more (she is a computer programmer), and also, to see her befriend co-workers other than Jeremy, but that wasn’t to be. I’d give this a C+.
A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair
This novel came to my attention thanks to a blog post by Liz McCausland, who said, “If you like Angela Thirkell, or the idea of a less ironic, more romantic Barbara Pym appeals–or perhaps a less angsty and romance-focused Betty Neels–this is a book for you.” I don’t believe I’ve read any of the three, but this novel did remind me of other 20th century English romantic novels.
Elizabeth Fair (1908-1997) was, in the words of Wikipedia, “an English writer who was known for humorous novels of English village life.” Wikipedia goes on to say that she “wrote six novels of English village life that humorously and gently dissected the ‘polite social politics’ of village denizens while managing to incorporate a romance or two.” This is a good description of her recently reissued 1957 novel, A Winter Away.
Maud, its heroine, comes to stay with her cousin Alice and Alice’s companion Miss Conway for the winter. Alice has arranged a job for Maud–she’ll be serving as secretary to Mr. Feniston, otherwise known as “old M” at his manor, Glaine.
Old M has not kept Glaine in the best condition, and he is a hoarder of books, which he wants Maud to help him catalog. He can be a bit of a tyrant, and on her first day, Maud is too scared to tell him that she can’t keep up with his dictation, so she ends up writing friendlier letters to his relatives, which he signs.
She soon gets acclimated to working for him, though, and even learns to stand up to him. Maud wants to reunite old M with his estranged nephew, Charles, who may be divorced, something that is still scandalous in this English village in the 1950s.
Then there is Oliver, old M’s son. He and his father can be cantankerous with each other, and when he visits, Maud tries to smooth things over–sometimes with disastrous (yet humorous) results. At first, Maud is also a touch confused about Oliver. Because he works in the field of Economics, Maud holds him responsible for the economizing at Glaine.
Little misunderstandings, tiffs, and a secret courtship drive the storyline–the latter involving Maud’s new friend, Ensie, a clergyman’s daughter.
This was a delightful, charming book about which I have little negative to say. It was published in 1957 and one can tell it was written at a time when the pace of life was slower than it is today. The novel doesn’t have a lot of urgency but it does have a sense of humor and it gently pokes fun at the foibles of human nature.
One scene involving a fender bender had me laughing out loud, as did novel’s denouement. But some of the humor is subtler, with lines such as, “Besides, it’s morally wrong to use bribery…so the least one can do is make the bribe worth taking.” Or “When people said they didn’t want to interfere, they always did, and Cousin Alice was no exception to the rule.”
For a book first published in 1957, A Winter Away isn’t as dated as some. There is only a little provincialism and not much snobbery. One character said to be a foreigner is referred to as “Who’s-it” but that’s the extent of it.
There’s also no sex or mental lusting, and I didn’t miss it, either. It was just a charming novel. I have bought two more books by Elizabeth Fair since this one made for enjoyable, relaxing bedtime reading. B.
The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, narrated by Lucy Price-Lewis
I impulsively picked up the audiobook of Helen Russell’s account of moving to Jutland, Denmark on the basis of liking the sample I listened to. This true story opens in London with Russell, a magazine journalist who finds “having it all” a struggle. For two years she and her husband have been trying to conceive, and she is exhausted, stressed and frazzled.
When her husband is approached about working for Denmark’s most famous toymaker, Russell is at first resistant to leaving her homeland. Having had more than enough adventure in her youth, she now craves stability. But it’s her husband’s dream to live overseas, so she agrees to think about it, and after researching Denmark, she learns some startling facts.
I discovered that Denmark had been ranked as the EU’s most expensive country to live in by Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, and that its inhabitants paid cripplingly high taxes. Which meant that we would, too. Oh brilliant! We’ll be even more skint by the end of the month than we already… But for your Danish krone, I learned, you got a comprehensive welfare system, free healthcare, free education (including university tuition), subsidized childcare and unemployment insurance guaranteeing 80 per cent of your wages for two years. Denmark, I was informed, also had one of the smallest gaps between the very rich and the very poor.
Learning that Denmark is ranked as the world’s happiest country ultimately decides her to agree to try out life there, and after relocating, she sets out to explore the various aspects of life that might possibly contribute to the Danes’ happiness.
Russell and “Lego Man,” as she nicknames her husband, arrive in Jutland in the dead of January while everyone else is ensconced at home with friends and family, experiencing hygge. Though they love the pastries, at first they struggle to get acclimated to the cold and in Russell’s case, to the short work week. Come spring, they join some of the popular social clubs, train their dog, and realize that in Denmark, tradition is more important than religion. They also learn that running up a Swiss flag to welcome a friend from Switzerland may not be a great idea.
Each chapter covers a different facet of Danish life—the bulk of the table of contents looks like a calendar:
1. January — Hygge & Home
2. February — Forgetting the 9-5
3. March — Leisure & Languages
4. April — Great Danes & Other Animals
5. May — Traditions & Getting Told Off
6. June – Just a Girl
7. July – Going Away & Playing Away
8. August — The Kids are Alright
9. September — Butchers, Bakers & Culture Makers
10. October — In Sickness & in Health
11. November — ‘Here comes the Snow/Sleet/Soul-destroying Darkness…”
12. December — Trusting the Taxman (or Woman)
13. Christmas — God Jul!
In each chapter, Russell describes not only her personal experiences with the topics at hand, but also interviews various “experts.” I use the word loosely because not all of them have official credentials. An expert on parenting, for example, is a mom to seven children. At the end of each interview, Russell asks each of her subjects to rank his or her happiness on a scale of one to ten; inevitably, everyone is at least an eight.
Russell’s writing about her experiences is filled with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that I enjoyed. While much of the book is very positive toward Denmark (even the high divorce rate is ascribed by one expert to the amazing social safety net and women’s financial independence), Russell is not entirely rah rah.
For example, in the chapter on feminism, amid praise for Denmark’s history of electing women to public office and other examples of gender parity, she does not neglect to mention a few setbacks, including (*shudder*) a television show in which middle aged women appear nude before a panel of men who rate their appearance and point out physical flaws like cellulite.
The narrator of the audiobook, Lucy Price-Lewis, does a good job of bringing out the wryness in Russell’s writing, which has been compared to that of Bill Bryson. I don’t recommend viewing this book as any kind of serious sociological study of Denmark, but if you’re looking for a fun pop culture read that allows you to “travel” to another land, this one is entertaining.
Grade: B (for narration and content both)