Tag Archives: summer reading

Summer Reads: A Double Header: Italy and Maine

Destinations: Italy and Maine

Books: Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen (NEW in June, 2015)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (originally published 1922, NEW in Penguin Classics in June, 2015 with introduction by Brenda Bowen.)

Four women who are strangers come together to rent a vacation home for a month. They become friends, renew romantic attachments with the men left at home and experience the magic of place.

That describes both of these books. The venerable The Enchanted April (Penguin Classics), first published in 1922 by Elizabeth Von Arnim and the new book inspired by that one–Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen.

I realize that the style of Elizabeth Von Arnim can seem a bit dated–the book is, after all, 83 years old. But I enjoy the trip back in time and a refresher course in the dry wit and emphasis on propriety of manners seen in books from England in the 20s.

Of course, the thing that everyone enjoys about this book is not the time travel, but the travel to a gorgeous piece of the world–Italy–somewhere near a coastal village, in a mansion practically smothered in flower beds, where flowers bloom all summer, presenting a constantly changing foreground for the mountains and the sea.

I had seen the movie (1992), but not read the book. I remembered gorgeous scenery, but not much more.

I am very glad I had this opportunity to read Von Arnim’s original book. Two women meet in a private club in London where they both have noticed an ad for an Italy villa for rent in Italy. Lottie Wilkins persuades Rose Arbuthnot to join her there, and they recruit the beautiful and well-born Caroline Dester. The fourth character, Mrs. Fisher, is an older woman who likes to name drop about famous people she knew, and judge everyone around her.

 There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly.

Von Arnim’s well-crafted sentences of description are what was missing from the movie, although the movie showed us the scenery that we can only imagine in the book, as when Lottie first looks out her bedroom window in Italy.

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet.  The sun poured in on her.  The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.  Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violet and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

As I rewatch the movie on Netflix, Joan Plowright, as the very proper Mrs. Fisher, recruited to help pay the rent, still cracks me up. Mrs. Fisher’s mannered observations bring to mind Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.  And lo and behold, Elizabeth Von Arnim makes an appearance in Downtown Abbey, so perhaps the writer was influenced by her as he penned the character of Violet.

Please don’t skip the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Enchanted April.  It frames the book perfectly, and sets the scene for the time and the style. Perhaps it will lead you to Brenda Bowen’s book, Enchanted August

Bowen, who obviously adores Von Arnim, updates the 1920s book’s concept, placing it firmly in the 20th century. Playing to an American audience rather than the British home of the other author, the book is set in Maine. The two women who launch the idea–Lottie and Rose, and the woman trying to escape all her adorers, Caroline Dester, share the names and character traits of the matching characters in The Enchanted April.

Class disparities in the American version are  based on occupation and celebrity rather than inherited titles.  Lottie and Rose meet at their children’s upscale preschool in Brooklyn rather than in a private club in London. Caroline is a movie star instead of a titled wealthy woman

Lifestyle changes in the past 80-plus years are striking. The large cottage in Maine has no servants. Unlike their predecessors in that isolated Italian villa, where they had only each other, the ladies interact with other summer residents on the small island somewhere near Mount Desert.  The two younger women have children–an encumbrance that would merely have cluttered the lives of the women in Von Arnim’s book. And of course they must worry a great deal about computer reception and cell phones with no signal.

While the women in the English book take advantage of the isolation to contemplate their lives, the American women busy themselves with projects–Rose in the village library and Caroline with a teen age drama group. Is this lack of introspection an American trait, or a casualty  of the cultural changes between 1920 and 2015?

Admittedly, in 1922, Caroline Dester also has no desire to tax herself with introspection as she lies in the sun in the Italian garden:

It was very curious, and no one in the world could have been more surprised than she herself, but she wanted to think. She had never wanted to do that before…She had not been there more than a few hours when this strange new desire took hold of her.

I found one other difference to be perhaps whimsical but. to my mind unnecessary. One of the characters–the fusty older woman, Mrs. Fisher– became a fusty older gay man, Beverly Fisher, grieving the passing of his partner, a famous poet.  At the risk of sounding incredibly politically incorrect and insensitive, I have to ask,”Why has it become obligatory to include at least one gay character in every book, movie, and TV show?” Does that make up for pretending they did not exist for the past 200 years of American literature and entertainment? I don’t think so. The question should be, what does this sex change of a character add to the book?

Answer: The character of Beverly Fisher is pivotal to Enchanted August, replacing the cook in the original version with his gourmet creations, eliciting much more sympathy than the older woman in the original, and in general practically stealing the show. But it takes away the intimacy of a women-only retreat and their sharing of knowledge about their own development and the men they deal with or have dealt with.

In general, Enchanted August presents a lovely escapists novel for summer reading. But Brenda Bowen’s writing is uneven. She took a great chance in allowing her first adult novel to be compared to the seasoned writing of Elizabeth Von Armin. There are times when Bowen rises almost to the eloquence of Von Armin, although she is writing about a much less eloquent age. And through most of the book I was eagerly turning pages to see how things would turn out for one of the characters, who were appealing each in their own way.  However, there were also times when the plot seemed to bog down in trivia and the unnecessary intrusion of subplots concerning the island’s summer crowd.

Which place would I most want to go for a month?  If I could travel back in time, as well as distance (and at 1920’s prices), the Italian villa would be a dream.  But all things considered, I have to admit that I would probably be most comfortable in a large cottage on an island in Maine.

How about you?  Would you like to inhabit the world of The Enchanted April, or that of Enchanted August. Or does a month away with three other women sound awful. Or if you’re a guy–would you join these four women if invited?

Best Summer Reads/Beach Reads

Are you ready to shop for some good summer reads?

Summer Reading

What is a “summer read” or a “beach read,” anyhow? For travelers who read, it probably involves

  • Visiting some far off place. Preferably the place that you will be traveling to for your summer break.
  • Books that can keep your mind off the physics of holding a jet plane in the air while you’re flying on an airplane.
  • Books that are gripping enough that you can get lost in them, but don’t take enormous amounts of brain power.
  • Books that can be left behind at the B & B or the beach house for the next reader.

Here are some that I’ve read that I think meet the criteria, starting with two romance adventures by British writer Lucy Clarke and then a new book in the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr.

A Q & A with the author in the back of the book A Single Breath, show why Lucy Clarke writes good books for travel-reading.

Q According to your author bio, you and your husband spend your winters traveling.  How does travel inform and inspire your writing?

A:  There is something about slinging a few belongings into a bag and heading off on a plane, train, or ferry that gives me the most incredible sense of freedom.  The break from routine, the stepping out of one’s ordinary world and into another, is surely good for the sould…I’m intrigued to see how characters behave outside the usual parameters of their daily lives.  Routine can be limiting, so I like to explore what happens when a character is taken out of their comfort zone and dislocated from their family and friends.


Swimming at Night, by Lucy Clarke (2013 in U.S.  Released in G.B. as The Sea Sisters.) [Destinations: Australia and Bali]

Both these books, romance-adventures, start with a death of someone close to the main character–in this case a sister dies in far-off Bali.  Coming to grips with the death of her sister Mia, Kate, the “sensible” sister, finds it hard to accept the conclusion that it was a suicide. Mia was the wild, sea-loving sister who found London stifling. Uncharacteristically, Kate, who thrives on routine in her London office job, grabs her sisters travel journal and her worn backpack and sets out to trace Mia’s steps from England to California, Australia and Bali.

Using the journal as a guide to the journey as well as a guide to understanding the complex relationship between her and her sister, Kate discovers things about herself as well as about Mia. Three men provide the romantic partnerships–one for Mia, one for Kate and one for both of them.

Clarke, who travels with her husband, a professional wind surfer, excels at description of the sea and the seaside. The pace is swift, the characters endearingly complex, and despite the fact that I am not a big fan of romances–this one had enough adventure and suspense that it kept me turning the pages.


A Single Breath by Lucy Clarke (NEW April 2014) [Destination: Tasmania]

In A Single Breath, the death is of the protagonist’s husband, and while the relationship may not resonate with everyone as strongly as that of the loss of a sister, it contains the same ingredients of romance and family secrets revealed in an exotic locale as does Swiming at Night.

A Single Breath is set in Tasmania.  Now there’s a place that you don’t often get to visit in a novel! Eva and Jackson live in London until he suddenly disappears.  Wanting to know more, she flies to Australia with a very good friend and takes the ferry to a small island off Tasmania where Jackson grew up.

There she meets his father and his brother and learns things about her husband that catch her (and the reader) by surprise. Reminders of her romantic days with Jackson are not enough to spice up the book, so we have the added frisson of an attraction to Jackson’s brother.


Destroyer Angel by Nevada Barr (2014) Review of unabridged audio book from Macmillan Audio, Read by Barbara Rosenblat. [Destination: Northern Minnesota.]

Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series follows the adventures of a middle-aged woman park ranger through many of the National Parks in the United States.  Destroyer Angel, however, takes place on Forest Service land in the deep woods of northern Minnesota because Anna is on vacation. Some vacation it turns out to be!

Barr excels in putting the reader into the location and in creating memorable characters.  Besides the intrepid Anna Pigeon, the cast of characters here includes Leah,  a woman who seems to be close to an Asperger’s Syndrome personality. She designs camping equipment for the handicapped and is really only happy when tinkering and considering engineering problems.  Then there is the paraplegic Heath who is testing new equipment, Heath’s daughter, a capable fifteen-year-old, and Leah’s babyish thirteen-year-old Katie, who Leah has trouble relating to.

Those friends of Anna are an interesting lot, but they don’t hold a candle to the fascinating personalities of the thugs who invade the camp with kidnap on their minds.  Anna is out in her canoe when the thugs appear, so she spends the rest of the novel skulking through the woods in their pursuit as her friends suffer increasingly difficult situations.  The threats to the characters mount in breathtakingly scary incidents piled on hardships inflicted by a cooly evil boss and his henchmen who are varying degrees of stupid and mean.

If you get the book, be warned that it may take you a while to get into it.  All those fascinating characters take some time to get used to, but once the introductory chapters are past, the action never stops.  On the audio book, the reader, Barbara Rosenblat, does a wonderful job of differentiating characters and keeping up with the pace of the book.


You might want to check some of my past recommendations for Beach Reading here and here. And perhaps another summer read here and some tips here.

OR–If you want to read about the specific place where you’re going to travel (and it is not Tasmania, Bali or Minnesota!), check  out the “Where Do You Want to Go?” box in the sidebar on the right (or at the bottom of the page if you’re reading on a mobile device). The drop down list will show you all the places that have been covered at A Traveler’s Library.

Notes: The publisher provided me with a hardback copy of Swimming at Night and a paperback copy of A Single Breath.  Macmillan provided the audio copy of Destroyer Angel. The copies were provided for review with no requirements that the reviews be positive.

Links to Amazon are here for your convenience, but A Traveler’s Library also earns a couple of cents when you order through those links. (Even though it costs you no more.) Thank you so much for your support.

Beach Read Time: Travel to Australia in Adventure Romance

Destination: Queensland, Australia, near Brisbane

Book: Lighthouse Bay by Kimberley Freeman

Beach Read: Australian beach
Port Douglas, Australia beach

What a perfect beach read. A sunken ship, buried treasure, a home on the beach by the lighthouse, sister relationships, adventure, and romance. Lighthouse Bay packs a lot into its two-pronged story.

Sailing ship wreckedThe two story lines swing between an unhappy young wife sailing from England to Australia in 1901, and a 40-year-old artist returning to her native Australia from work in Paris in 2011.  Isabella Winterbourne escapes the shipwreck without her husband but with a priceless mace created by the Winterbourne jewelers as a gift from the Queen.  In her story, we follow her shipwreck survival story and her adventures trying to find a way to get to American to be with her sister. Along the way she reveals her secrets to the lighthouse keeper who helps her.


Australia lighthouseLibby Slater has a fraught relationship with her sister, who now runs a bed and breakfast in their home town of Lighthouse Bay. Libby left Paris when her long-time (married) lover died. Also from the Winterbourne jeweler family, he had conveniently left Libby a home near the lighthouse, so she has a place to live.  His widow, oblivious about the affair, contracts with Libby to continue work with their jewelry firm. In Australia Libby meets a handsome and charming man who may become the new love interest in her life, but may just be trying to buy and develop her property.

The two stories of this beach read appropriately merge on a beach when a younger man who is camped out in the lighthouse helps Libby dig into the history of the mysterious cargo of the 1901 shipwreck, and they discover part of the story of Isabella.

As you can see from the brief summary, there is plenty going on here, and even though I predicted most of the outcomes as I read, the book tugged me all the way through. I wanted  to follow the stories of the  two appealing lead characters.  My complaint is that despite the hardships and problems they face, their survival always seems to depend on some incredible coincidence that makes the story seem less, well, credible.

As a traveler, it is interesting to have a beach read that nicely describes life in a small beach town near Brisbane, Australia. As a reader, it is nice to discover an Australian author, since Australian literature (even the lightweight beach read) unfortunately doesn’t often make it all the way across the Pacific to America.

So, have you discovered some Australian literature that we should add to a traveler’s library?

Pictures are used through Creative Commons license from Flickr.com. Click on each picture to learn about the photographer.  Affiliate links to Amazon are embedded in the book title and cover picture. This enables you to shop at Amazon and support A Traveler’s Library without spending any more. Magic! Thanks for your support.