(Not Quite) Wordless Wednesday: Revisiting royal fever


So. Given my anglophilia and general love of babies and happiness, I’m a wee bit excited over the arrival of William and Kate’s son. My family was in London just a week before their wedding in April 2011, a time laced with excitement and sunshine. I wish I could have hopped a flight to linger outside Buckingham Palace waiting for the royal decree with so many well-wishers on Monday but, alas, I’m a desk-bound American with no funds or vacation time save what she’s using for her own upcoming nuptials.

Still, a peasant can dream.

In honor of the Royal Prince (is he a prince already? Must Google), I’m revisiting my favorite photos from trips to English trips in 2009 and 2011 today. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: London is the city of my heart. My heart hurts a bit looking at these, remembering how exhilarating it was to walk around Trafalgar Square or along the Thames . . . some of my happiest days have been spent in London. I really must get back there. For a day, for a week — I don’t know. But I have to go.

And I really must go find myself a scone.

Trafalgar Square

Aerial view

British money

Gardens at Buckingham

Big Ben

Busy London street

Gardens at Hyde Park

Mind the gap

Hyde Park ferris wheel

Westminster Abbey

Book review: ‘The Last Camellia’ by Sarah Jio

The Last CamelliaIn 2000, American Addison Sinclair has packed up to live the dream of many an anglophile: she and her writer husband, Rex, are freshly arrived at a newly-purchased family estate in the English countryside. Livingston Manor’s past unfurls through the stoic and elderly housekeeper, Miss Dilloway, and the many botany books Addison discovers in the home.

Once she learns of Flora, an amateur botanist and fellow American once contracted to care for Lord Livingston’s four children as a nanny . . . and something more sinister. What became of her? As Addison learns more about the Livingstons’ camellia orchard and the ill-fated woman who once loved them, decades-old murder mysteries combine with the ghostly specter of Addison’s past to unearth a hotbed of secrets.

Sarah Jio is quickly becoming a star in the world of historical fiction. With The Last Camellia, her fourth novel, the dual narratives of two Americans marooned at Livingston Manor in England intersect in consistent — if somewhat predictable — ways.

So. The good. It’s impossible to traverse Livingston Manor without pausing to smell the roses, so to speak. The atmosphere Jio creates is intoxicating: a grand British estate; a severe but kindhearted housekeeper; mysterious children kept under lock and key; a glorious, hidden conservatory in the center of the mansion. Though all the camellia talk became tiring, especially when discussing the elusive Middlebury Pink, I appreciated the warmth and grandeur conveyed in this vivid story. I never forgot where I was — and the manor could easily have been something out of “Downton Abbey.”

Maybe that’s why I was initially drawn into the story? The talk of servants and lords, the distinctly British feel. The air of mystery is inescapable, having me question Addison’s present and Flora’s past in one fell swoop.

But then I figured everything out.

Look, putting the pieces together doesn’t always preclude me from enjoying a story. As a reader, I’m not always astute; sometimes I read for the sheer pleasure of it, refusing to slide the various clues into place. I’m the same way with movies. Though the answers seem obvious, I don’t play along. I just keep turning the pages, waiting to be surprised the way an author likely intended.

Other times, though? Well, other times I just can’t help but figure things out. Little clues feel learn toward sledgehammers instead of  subtleties. For as much as I enjoy Jio’s stories, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re a little too much “tell” and not enough “show” for me.

In the case of The Last Camellia, I was far more invested in Flora than Addison; an air of mystery lingered longer with our mysterious nanny-turned-flower-stalker than it did for our modern character. I never really got a sense of Addison — and her back story felt hokey, honestly. The transitions were clunky. We shuffle from 2000 to 1940 and then to “fifteen years earlier,” when a teenage Addison was taken in by a drunken aunt. The circumstances surrounding Addison’s childhood and formative years, meeting Rex, getting married — all left out. I never got a sense of Rex and the Sinclair family, either; they were just kind of . . . there. We know Rex is at Livingston Manor to write a novel and is, perhaps, drawing inspiration from his wife’s discoveries about previous tenants, but he feels a bit like a prop. The story isn’t about him, I know, but it was hard to ignore someone tossed into the action with no real part to play.

The Livingston family, on the other hand, felt much better realized. Eldest daughter Katherine was realistically drawn and sympathetic. Her interactions with Flora could be frustrating, but one can’t help but feel for a girl who has lost her mother. Flora’s yearning for her family was palpable, while the developing “romance” with a character connected to the Livingstons in an unexpected way was never fully developed. Because I never dug in deep with Flora and her beau, I couldn’t fully appreciate the dramatic conclusion. And the mystery that failed to really be a mystery just left me indifferent.

Despite my issues, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this story — because I really did. I read the whole thing in a few days, tearing through it once I’d reached the halfway point. Jio has a talent for wrapping readers up in her stories and a gift for the dual narrative. The shifts between past and present weren’t always seamless, but it’s a quick read with enough historical intrigue to keep readers happy. If you’ve enjoyed Jio’s previous novels or are simply looking for a fun story with a modern and vintage vibe, The Last Camellia may be just the ticket.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: May 28, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Bookish thoughts on ‘North and South’

So. North and South.

Elizabeth Gaskell, you sly little minx. You’ve managed to completely evade my radar for years — and that includes a pretty substantial English education with a focus on British lit. Until Andi and Heather began talk of a readalong to tackle one of your more famous works, I was operating under the (incorrect) assumption that North and South was a U.S. Civil War-esque melodrama perhaps pitting brother against brother, father against son.

I guess that’s just my American-centric mindset.

Despite being a professed anglophile and lover of history, I can’t say I knew much — if anything — about England’s Industrial Revolution. I can feel you all readying tomatoes to chuck at me now, but I’m being honest — the only thing was a complete mystery to me. I feel like my best introduction to the whole “pastoral to industrial” transition in Great Britain came from watching the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

And that’s what I kept thinking about while reading. How one peaceful, idyllic place — the English countryside — could be home to 19-year-old Margaret Hale for years, and how she would love and appreciate the quaint nature of her home. How different northern Milton would seem — Milton with its filthy air and unwashed workers, fat-cat mill owners and starving children. It would be like something out of a nightmare.

Good thing John Thornton was there.

The premise of Gaskell’s classic, penned in 1855, is this: Margaret, the fairly well-to-do daughter of a minister, is forced to move with her parents from tranquil Helstone to Milton, where Margaret’s father gains employment as a tutor. It’s Mr. Hale’s crisis of faith that removes their trio from the peaceful south to the smoke-clogged north, and a series of troubles begins to stymie her family.

Margaret doesn’t have much to do in Milton. She wanders around as her father takes on pupils and her mother’s health begins to fail, meeting with local workers and learning of their plights in Milton’s mills. She befriends an ill girl, tends to the sick and notices all the children “clemming” — starving to death, that is. People clem a lot in North and South. So much so that I had to Google the monkey out of that word, trying to figure out what the heck was happening to these poor townsfolk.

Mr. Thornton is an enigma to Margaret. As Marlborough Mills’ successful owner and self-made man, he’s part of the nouveau rich that rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution. Having earned his wealth through determination and ingenuity, he has the respect of many in Milton — but Margaret herself is unmoved. (She thinks, anyway.) As she befriends locals and a worker’s strike looms, Margaret finds herself on both sides of the issue . . . and unsure which way to turn.

It’s been so long — too long — since I dove into a good classic. Knowing next to nothing about North and South worked in my favor during the weeks I spent with this book, and I enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the language and piecing together a portrait of Gaskell’s brooding characters. The mystery surrounding Margaret’s long-lost brother, Frederick, and a supposed mutiny in which he was a key player added a great deal of suspense to the plot. As the threads began to unravel, I was completely sucked in.

Though tragedy after tragedy cast a melancholy pall over the work, it was hard to deny the attraction between Thornton and Margaret. Their tête-à-têtes regarding business and philosophy were interesting, if not sparkling with the wit and humor of other British writers like Jane Austen. So many knowledgeable people have weighed in on the Gaskell vs. Austen debate, comparing and contrasting the authors, and I won’t pretend to have anything intelligent to add to the conversation . . . especially after reading just one of Gaskell’s works. Suffice it to say that I definitely did and could see similarities between the authors, though I have to hand Austen the blue ribbon for creating a more likable, frustrating and beguiling pair in Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Margaret and Thornton — because I totally did. When Thornton professes a few things and Margaret has a few things to say back (sorry for being vague . . . just trying to avoid spoilers!), I wanted to pinch her haughty little face. Margaret is strong and capable, intelligent and keen, but she’s utterly blind to matters of the heart. That made her especially annoying as Thornton is basically awesome and all but throwing himself at her, albeit in a very Victorian way, and Margaret is too busy screwing things up with her brother and endlessly worrying to notice.

But oh, the push and pull! The tension! The will-they-or-won’t-they! It got me in the end, friends. It always does. Though I agree with others (including Trish) that the ending feels a bit abrupt, especially in light of all we had to endure to get there, I kind of liked the simplicity of it. The inevitable quality of giving in to one’s emotions. The sense of relief when we lay down our swords and just . . . let it be. And the humorous bit at the end? The sparring? I loved it.

North and South was interesting, educational, emotional and atmospheric. Though it took me a little while to get used to the language and invested in the story, I did — and really enjoyed chatting with other readers throughout the readalong. I doubt I would have gotten around to this book without Heather and Andi’s encouragement, so three cheers for book blogging!

And um, yes — I’ve already purchased the BBC mini-series “North and South” on DVD for my viewing pleasure. I’ve seen enough “RICHARD ARMITAGE OMG! ASDFG@ERY72!!!!” sentiments to convince me that 2004 rendition is a must-watch, so everyone look out. . . I’ll likely have a new literary crush in no time!

Evolution of a London tourist (and photographer)

Freshly graduated from college and traveling abroad for the first time in my life, my first trip to London — in May 2007 — found me wandering around with my family and a tiny point-and-shoot camera. I’d barely had my PowerShot a week when we boarded the plane, but I was ecstatic to be going overseas.

Dad was our tour guide, plotting out the places we wanted to see in the city before boarding another plane for Rome. In Italy we met up with our tour group (Trafalgar, of course!) and ate amazing food while visiting gorgeous, historic places. It was life-changing.

But before Italy was London, and London has my heart.

Being a 21-year-old who had only ever traveled with her parents, I was completely reliant upon them to get us around the city. As the Tube seemed too complicated to attempt, we traveled by tour bus or taxi to see Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and more. By some miracle we even found ourselves at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the other side of the Thames. And though we didn’t get to see the Houses of Parliament on foot, we whizzed by on our “coach” a few times.

My photos were pretty terrible. I didn’t know anything about Photoshop or post-processing. Terms like composition, exposure and aperture meant nothing to me; I was just concentrating on getting something in my frame. Sometimes I succeeded, and other times not so much. In my own defense, we were on some form of transportation most of the time . . . and it’s pretty challenging to get an amazing shot from a fast-moving tour bus.

But looking at it with a critical eye, I just didn’t know what I was doing.

The next time I returned, I was ready — and not just with a better understanding of photography. My friend Stacy was studying abroad and living in England, so I knew she could navigate us anywhere we needed to be. We stayed away from very “touristy” spots and favored local eateries. We took the Tube everywhere, and when we wanted to go to Surrey — where I did got to the quite touristy (but awesome) Hampton Court Palace — we took an actual honest-to-goodness train.

We were on foot and busy, excited and without trepidation. Stacy was my tour guide, showing me another side of the city I’ve come to love so well. Though my parents dropped me off in D.C. and my friend met me at Heathrow, it was my first time actually traveling alone. If visiting England for the first time was life-changing, visiting for a second time was incredible. When I close my eyes, I can still remember what it felt like to ride the Tube alone headed back to the airport on a quiet Sunday morning. Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” came on my iPod, and I looked out the windows and felt . . . alive.

Aside from all that emotional growth, the photos I took — those above — were so much better. Between that first and second trip to London, Mom and I took a local photography class. I got really into macro shots and began to understand my point-and-shoot’s settings. Same camera — different perspective. And more knowledge. And more passion.

And I wasn’t on a tour bus then. Trust me, I love tour buses — and they’re a great way to quickly get the lay of the land. But if you want the real action? The real deal? You better get your feet on the ground. You better start walking.

When our travels brought us back to London in April, I had my Canon Rebel in hand. I’ve spent years cultivating my interest in photography and have had plenty of time to obsess over the city. Without a friend there to guide me, I developed an itinerary of what we should see and do during our four days in London — both before our group Trafalgar tour through the U.K. and after.

I was the tour guide.

I navigated the Tube with (relative) ease, getting us from Trafalgar Square to Charing Cross Road and back again. We rode on the London Eye. Shopped at Covent Garden. Attended Easter Mass at Westminster Abbey. And though we took the long way from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace, we got in some excellent exercise — combined with a memorable story to tell. (Yes, it was one step away from a death march. But it was a fun death march.)

Same places, different perspective.

And who knows what I’ll see — and how I’ll see it — the next time.

When in Bath — run like the dickens

During our madcap tour of Great Britain last April, there was a time I found myself running — sweating profusely, sprinting — through the streets of Bath, England, en route to The Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street.

Traveling with an awesome tour group, we’d already meandered through Wales and Stonehenge the day we found ourselves in the city. With only an hour to see the town before getting back on the coach en route to London, Bath had to be viewed while dodging fellow tourists and cutting corners down cobblestoned streets en route to the Centre paying homage to literary great Jane Austen.

I had to get there.

It wasn’t easy, though. Temperatures in England were unseasonably warm then — you’re welcome; a little present from your American visitors — and the clothes I’d packed were way too hot. Just trying to navigate to the Centre from our drop-off point had me panting, frantic that we weren’t going to make it. People were everywhere: in line for the Roman Baths; dodging into restaurants and fast-food spots; meandering the streets; sunning themselves on benches. Of all the places we visited during our two-week stint around the U.K., Bath was easily the most populated . . . and the most tourist-friendly.

Which is to say, it was crowded as all get-out.

With Dad’s pre-planned route through the city, though, we made it to Gay Street. I knew we were approaching The Jane Austen Centre when I noticed a man dressed in historical garb greeting passersby. In all my excitement, I totally ignored the poor guy and rushed to take a photo with “Jane” herself. A life-sized statue of Miss Austen is perched in front of the Centre entrance.

Jane lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and is considered to be the town’s “best known and best loved” resident, according to the Centre website. Though our dear Miss Austen wasn’t overly fond of Bath herself, my favorite of her novels — Persuasion — takes place there. Northanger Abbey is set in the city, too.

The Centre is located at 40 Gay Street, though Austen once called No. 25 home. If we’d had the time, I would have loved to see the museum or take a walking tour of all the sites bearing some importance to Austen’s writings. The city is brimming with fascinating locales.

But alas, I had time for only one thing: visiting the gift shop. And that didn’t disappoint. All sorts of Darcy-themed trinkets were on display, as well as Austen’s complete works and numerous books on her life. I was so busy grabbing bookmarks and postcards that I didn’t absorb any of the ambiance, though. Still sweating and trying not to knock anything over with my big camera, I set myself back a few dozen pounds but came out with some cute things.

Since we had to hurry right back to grab our lift to London, I didn’t get to soak up Bath the way I would have wanted. There was obviously so much to see and do, and I was dying (DYING!, and we were so close!) to get to the Royal Crescent. But I’ll just filter that experience into an excuse to go back to that gorgeous Georgian city someday.

As if I need a reason.