When it is cold and snowy outside, nothing is more fun than curling up under my favorite blanket with a good book — a book that takes me to different times and places and introduces me to characters which leave me thinking long after the book is finished. Two books that I have recently read, one by myself, the other with my daughters, are perfect titles in which to lose oneself on these short January days.
The Crimson Rooms
By Katharine McMahon
$25.95, Penguin Group
I have always had a weakness for stories set in post-World War I England; so when I picked up The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon (bestselling author of The Rose of Sebastopol and The Alchemist’s Daughter), I was prepared to like this story about a heartbreaking yet fascinating period in history. I wasn’t disappointed. An engrossing read, McMahon’s latest will appeal to readers of the historical fiction of Sarah Waters, Gwendolyn Brooks and Jacqueline Winspear.
The Crimson Rooms (an allusion to a Wilfred Owen poem) is told from the perspective of Evelyn Gifford, 30 years old and one of the first aspiring woman lawyers in England. The story opens six years after the end of the Great War, in which she lost her beloved younger brother James. Evelyn seems entombed in a stifling life at Clivedon Hall Gardens with her ineffectual mother, stolid Aunt Prudence and slightly batty grandmother. Her work with the law firm of the quixotic Daniel Breen is the only escape from her gray, drab existence — until the appearance on her doorstep of the mercurial Meredith Duffy and her young son Edmund, who bears a striking and undeniable resemblance to her dead brother.
Evelyn soon realizes that nothing is what it seems. Though immediately struck with love for the young Edmund, she feels that there is much more to Meredith’s story than that of a nurse who cared for James and became pregnant with his child. Slight, dark, stylish and extravagantly emotional, Meredith is the opposite of the tall, willowy, blond Evelyn, who has walled herself off from all feeling since James’s death. Evelyn is unsettled by Meredith and distrusts her, but is determined to make an effort to accept her in order to ensure that Edmund remains a part of her life. Little does she realize that in uncovering the secrets of Edmund’s conception, she will also come to a greater understanding of her own feelings.
Interwoven through the story of Evelyn’s discovery of her need for love and connection is the story of her clients — Leah Marchant, a destitute women who is standing trial for the kidnapping of her own baby, and Stephen Wheeler, a war veteran charged with the murder of his beautiful young wife. Add Nicholas Thorne, the dashing and handsome legal representative of Lord Hardynge, employer to the accused Stephan Wheeler, and you have the compelling cast of characters that make up The Crimson Rooms.
The storyline was certainly riveting, but what I liked best about this book was the character of Evelyn. Her voice was believable and likable. Her vivid descriptions of her grief over the loss of her brother and her growing love for her nephew are detailed in achingly tender terms. The minute that I finished reading the novel, I found myself hoping that Katharine McMahon writes more about the intriguing Evelyn Gifford. Treat yourself and pick up The Crimson Rooms. I don’t think that you will be disappointed.
The Wednesday Wars
By Gary Schmidt
My daughters (ages 10 and 12) and I just finished The Wednesday Wars together — rarely have we laughed so hard while learning so much. And “toads, beetles, bats,” we are still reciting Shakespearean curses to each other!
Holling Hoodhood has just started the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High in Long Island, NY, and his English teacher is making him spend every Wednesday afternoon reading Shakespeare’s plays. The year is 1967, and all of the students spend Wednesday afternoons in either Catechism at St. Adelbert’s or Hebrew school at Temple Beth-El — except for Holling, the only Presbyterian in the class. It was unfair. It was “a disaster.” But Holling has a hard time finding anyone who has any sympathy for him. His father is obsessed with his career, his mother with maintaining “the perfect house” and his older sister with being a teenager.
Humorously told, The Wednesday Wars is fun for parents and kids alike. Holling’s quest for “brown, light, and perfect cream puffs,” his burgeoning love of Shakespeare and his friendships with his classmates are all set against the backdrop of the United States during the tumultuous ’60s. To Holling, the events of the time period (Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, to name a few) seem far away, but he soon sees how much all of their lives are affected.
This Wonder Years-type story is extremely entertaining, yet meaty enough to spark conversations around a wide variety of subjects. The Wednesday Wars is a fabulous read aloud, and I highly recommend it. After all, any book that has kids eager to read Shakespeare has my vote of approval!