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Abandoned Books: ‘Collected Stories’ by Colette and ‘After the Death of Ellen Keldberg’ by Eddie Thomas Petersen

Collected Stories by Colette 9780374518653
I have been looking forward to Colette’s Collected Stories for such a long time. Translated by Antonia White, an author whom I enjoy, I expected that these tales would be immersive, beautifully written, and memorable. I normally find Colette’s work immediately absorbing and transporting, so I was surprised when I did not find myself becoming immersed in this early on. These are largely really more like sketches and monologues than short stories, and as most of them feature Colette, or a facsimile of herself, either as narrator or main character, it feels like a series of biographical fragments rather than a collection of stories.

Collected Stories had very little of the pull which I was expecting. There was little of the charm and wit of her longer works, too. Perhaps because the collection which I read is comprised of earlier stories, they are not as polished as her later work. Regardless, I felt markedly underwhelmed by this collection. I enjoyed a couple of the stories, but the plots included were largely very thin on the ground, and the characters difficult to connect with.

White’s translation felt seamless, and I had no problem with the prose itself. Collected Stories feels like an anomaly in what I have read of Colette’s thus far. I found this collection lacklustre and disappointing, but am hoping that it is just a blip in her oeuvre, as I would very much like to read the rest of Colette’s full-lenth work in future.

 

9781999944841After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen
Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg has been translated from its original Danish by Toby Bainton. Set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which is ‘an artists’ paradise in summer, but only the locals belong there in winter’, a mystery begins to unfold when the dead body of a woman named Ellen Keldberg is discovered on a bench.

Petersen immediately sets the scene, in brief descriptive prose: ‘Bluish white, like skimmed milk, the mist seems so near that you could gather it up in your hands. The storm has blown itself out in the night and the wind has dropped, but you can still hear the waves breaking in a hollow roar out by the bay.’ There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but I found the conversations to be stilted and unrealistic for the most part, and the majority of the writing which followed too matter-of-fact, and even a little dull at times. The translation used some quite old-fashioned words and phrases which made the novel seem dated.

My expectations were markedly different to what I found within the pages of this novel. Whilst I found the premise of After the Death of Ellen Keldberg interesting enough, for this genre of novel, it felt too slow-going, and plodded along in rather a sluggish manner. The book’s blurb proclaims that this is a ‘subtle novel… an enthralling family saga, a slow-burning murder mystery, and a portrait of Skagen in the dark and in the snow, full of alliances and old secrets.’ Slow is correct. Whilst I was expecting a piece of immersive Nordic Noir, I received something which felt as though it hardly got going.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was not at all what I was expecting, and I felt distanced from the characters from the outset. They did not appear particularly interesting to me; nor were they three-dimensional. The entirety of the novel felt rather lacklustre, and I would not rush to read another of Petersen’s novels.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘The Cat’ by Colette *****

There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes.  Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too.  It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title.  I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic.  Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.

The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think.  This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes.  The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us.  All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.

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Reading the World: ‘For a Flower Album’ by Colette ****

I adore Colette, and when I spotted this unknown-to-me tome on the Open Library, I borrowed it immediately.  It is a relatively short tome, translated from its original French by Roger Senhouse, and first published in the United Kingdom in 1959.  Here, Colette presents love letters to flowers – and a couple of interesting essay-length pieces written from the perspective of them – from the rose to the narcissi, and from the orchid to the hellebore.

s-l300Each prose piece is typically around three pages long, and several of the entries are accompanied by beautiful watercolours painted by Manet.  For any fans of her fiction, and any lovers of the outdoor world, For a Flower Album is a real treat.  It also makes a lovely seasonal read for the summer months; I can well imagine sitting in a beautiful park or meadow, surrounded by flowers, and dipping in and out of its pages.

What Colette says is, unsurprisingly, intelligent and thoughtful.  Her musings are also rather original for the most part, particularly when we consider those pieces from the imagined perspectives of several flowers.  ‘The Gardenia’s Perspective’ is the strongest of these, and is really rather lovely.  Such inclusions remind one just how strong Colette’s fiction is, and that she is first and foremost a prose writer.  She, of course, discusses the aesthetics of her chosen flowers, and sometimes alludes to their perfect growing conditions too.  Sometimes we are privy to such details as to when one can expect the flowers to emerge, and her favourite varieties.  Memories of Colette’s past have also been included throughout, in which she talks about her love of nature as a child, and the places which she has been in order to see the best floral specimens.

For a Flower Album is sensual in its descriptions, and many themes are touched upon, from art to gastronomy.  It is, as well as a manual in how to love, admire, and sometimes care for flowers, a celebration of France and its nature.  There is not a great deal of consistency to the piece, but it is the perfect choice to accompany a heavier book with.

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One From the Archive: ‘Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves’ by Jane Gilmour ****

I rarely begin reviews by talking about what a book looks like, but I feel I ought to here.  The hardback edition of Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves by Jane Gilmour is absolutely beautiful.  It is very aesthetically pleasing, and will be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.  You can see the glorious attention to detail on the cover image below, and I am pleased to report that the theme continues throughout.  Each chapter begins with a gorgeous double page spread of photographs and illustrations, and pictures have been included throughout the text of both Colette and the places which she called home.  A lovely illustrated motif runs along the bottom of each page too, and even the typography has been marvellously thought out.

‘Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves’ by Jane Gilmour

Without further ado, I will stop gushing about the aesthetic properties of Colette’s France and deliver a review about its contents.  The illustrated biography which Gilmour has written so lovingly is ‘told through the stunning locations in France where she lived, worked and loved.’  Gilmour, having studied the author in question’s work for decades, ‘has a personal passion and extensive knowledge of Colette and her life’.  At the outset, she states that she wanted to write such a biography for the following reason: ‘When reading Colette, I had the feeling of not being alone.  She was like a confidante, a friend who could see into the human heart, who could peel back the layers of illusion and delusion that mask the complex and troublesome nature of human relationships’.

In her biography, Gilmour has traced the path of Colette through France.  She has chosen to split the writing into nine rather short and accessible chapters, which range from elements such as her childhood and Belle Epoque Paris, to the effects of war and her love of tranquil seaside places such as Saint Tropez.  Gilmour has added a wonderful prologue and epilogue as bookends of sorts against the main body of text, as well as a chronology, a suggested reading list, and ‘a guide for your own journey in search of Colette’, which is a lovely touch.

When beginning to write about her subject, Gilmour states that, ‘Armed with what she called her “monstrous innocence”, she wore many masks as she created both her own reality and her own myth – provincial ingenue, risque performer, lesbian lover, prodigious journalist and writer, businesswoman, baroness and mother, lover and seducer, loyal friend and mentor and, finally, grand old lady of letters, revered and honoured with a state funeral when she died in 1954.’  She begins with outlining the lives of Colette’s parents, and then goes onto her own birth in 1873, and her childhood in ‘a flourishing village [Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye] of close to two thousand people’, in a region which Colette referred to as ‘my poor Burgundy’.

Colette

Colette was the daughter of free-thinking parents, who allowed their children to ‘spend hours in the garden reading, or to go wandering in the woods’.  Only the novels of Emile Zola were forbidden to Colette and her siblings, and they were encouraged to be as well read as was possible.  Gilmour tracks her early interest in literature and her path to becoming a writer in a succinct manner, which suits the book perfectly.

The quotes which Gilmour weaves in throughout from Colette’s work, letters and journals are lovely, and it is clear that they have been chosen with such care.  The social and historical context has been set marvellously.  As the author has visited all of the places in which Colette lived and loved, her descriptions come to life.  She writes of what certain scenes were like when Colette knew them, and how they have altered in the interim.  Gilmour’s writing is beautiful; her prose is delicate, and almost story-like throughout.  This enables the book to be very readable, and it is not at all dry as a lot of biographies seem to be.

Colette’s France is well structured and fascinating, and at no point does it drag on or seem dull.  Colette had a fascinating life in France, and Gilmour has transcribed this to the page in the best manner imaginable.  The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in French culture, life in France, Colette, the lives of writers living in the same period, the Belle Epoque, early- to mid-twentieth century Paris, and French theatre.  Colette’s France is a biography which is difficult to put down, and one can only hope that Gilmour turns her hand to writing other such books in future.

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The Fifty Women Challenge:: ‘The Cat’ by Colette *****

There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes.  Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too.  It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title.  I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic.  Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.

The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think.  This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes.  The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us.  All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.

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Flash Reviews: Non-Fiction (22nd September 2014)

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman ****
1. The book is far more harrowing than the film.  Some of the scenes which Szpilman relates are grotesque, and really bring to life the horrors which surrounded him on a daily basis.
2. Szpilman’s lucid writing style lulls his readers in, and the way in which he has presented his story makes the horrid episodes which it relates all the more harrowing.
3. As far as World War Two memoirs go, The Pianist is amongst the most interesting which I have read to date.  Szpilman brilliantly exemplifies life in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his own survival within it.

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Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin ****
1. As everyone, I am sure, knows, I love Tove Jansson, and was so excited when I learnt that Boel Westin’s biography of her was to be translated into English.  It is a hefty tome, but so much work has clearly been put into it.
2. The relatively non-chronological structure was a little confusing at times, but the thematic links between episodes in Tove’s life did work well.  Sadly, the whole had not been checked as well it should have been, and many little mistakes could be found throughout the book.  The translation was also not as flawless as I had expected it would be, particularly as Sort Of Books are usually so good at rendering foreign texts into careful English.
3. The social and historical details of Tove’s life did ground her story well, and the descriptions of the places in which she made her home were well wrought.  The photographs and illustrations throughout were a lovely touch, but they did not always relate to the text around them and sometimes seemed to have been placed at random.

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My Mother’s House by Colette ****
1.  Colette is one of my favourite authors, and I was very much looking forward to reading some of her autobiographical work.  My interest in her life was piqued when I read the wonderful Colette’s France: Her Life, Her Loves by Jane Gilmour last year.  My Mother’s House draws upon her childhood and the influence which her mother, Sido, had upon her.
2. Colette’s writing throughout is beautiful.  She is candid and honest about her past, and it feels as though she wants nothing more than to share her life with her readers.
3. Each chapter is a small essay of sorts; none is connected, but the structure works very well indeed.

Purchase from The Book Depository

 

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‘Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves’ by Jane Gilmour ****

I rarely begin reviews by talking about what a book looks like, but I feel I ought to here.  The hardback edition of Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves by Jane Gilmour is absolutely beautiful.  It is very aesthetically pleasing, and will be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.  You can see the glorious attention to detail on the cover image below, and I am pleased to report that the theme continues throughout.  Each chapter begins with a gorgeous double page spread of photographs and illustrations, and pictures have been included throughout the text of both Colette and the places which she called home.  A lovely illustrated motif runs along the bottom of each page too, and even the typography has been marvellously thought out.

‘Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves’ by Jane Gilmour

Without further ado, I will stop gushing about the aesthetic properties of Colette’s France and deliver a review about its contents.  The illustrated biography which Gilmour has written so lovingly is ‘told through the stunning locations in France where she lived, worked and loved.’  Gilmour, having studied the author in question’s work for decades, ‘has a personal passion and extensive knowledge of Colette and her life’.  At the outset, she states that she wanted to write such a biography for the following reason: ‘When reading Colette, I had the feeling of not being alone.  She was like a confidante, a friend who could see into the human heart, who could peel back the layers of illusion and delusion that mask the complex and troublesome nature of human relationships’.

In her biography, Gilmour has traced the path of Colette through France.  She has chosen to split the writing into nine rather short and accessible chapters, which range from elements such as her childhood and Belle Epoque Paris, to the effects of war and her love of tranquil seaside places such as Saint Tropez.  Gilmour has added a wonderful prologue and epilogue as bookends of sorts against the main body of text, as well as a chronology, a suggested reading list, and ‘a guide for your own journey in search of Colette’, which is a lovely touch.

When beginning to write about her subject, Gilmour states that, ‘Armed with what she called her “monstrous innocence”, she wore many masks as she created both her own reality and her own myth – provincial ingenue, risque performer, lesbian lover, prodigious journalist and writer, businesswoman, baroness and mother, lover and seducer, loyal friend and mentor and, finally, grand old lady of letters, revered and honoured with a state funeral when she died in 1954.’  She begins with outlining the lives of Colette’s parents, and then goes onto her own birth in 1873, and her childhood in ‘a flourishing village [Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye] of close to two thousand people’, in a region which Colette referred to as ‘my poor Burgundy’.

Colette

Colette was the daughter of free-thinking parents, who allowed their children to ‘spend hours in the garden reading, or to go wandering in the woods’.  Only the novels of Emile Zola were forbidden to Colette and her siblings, and they were encouraged to be as well read as was possible.  Gilmour tracks her early interest in literature and her path to becoming a writer in a succinct manner, which suits the book perfectly.

The quotes which Gilmour weaves in throughout from Colette’s work, letters and journals are lovely, and it is clear that they have been chosen with such care.  The social and historical context has been set marvellously.  As the author has visited all of the places in which Colette lived and loved, her descriptions come to life.  She writes of what certain scenes were like when Colette knew them, and how they have altered in the interim.  Gilmour’s writing is beautiful; her prose is delicate, and almost story-like throughout.  This enables the book to be very readable, and it is not at all dry as a lot of biographies seem to be.

Colette’s France is well structured and fascinating, and at no point does it drag on or seem dull.  Colette had a fascinating life in France, and Gilmour has transcribed this to the page in the best manner imaginable.  The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in French culture, life in France, Colette, the lives of writers living in the same period, the Belle Epoque, early- to mid-twentieth century Paris, and French theatre.  Colette’s France is a biography which is difficult to put down, and one can only hope that Gilmour turns her hand to writing other such books in future.

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Sunday Snapshot: Short Story Collections

The Other Woman by Colette
These short stories are like tiny bites of beauty. They are like the most delicious of chocolates in fact – a smooth and polished outer shell with rich and rather surprising fillings. The longest story in the collection is forty pages long, and the majority are around the five page mark, but they are all, without a doubt, flawless. Colette weaves words wonderfully to create truly sublime vignettes, and she uses a fantastic and far-reaching range of material, characters and scenes. Utterly perfect.

Runaway by Alice Munro
I’ve read two of Munro’s short story collections before – The Beggar Maid and The Moons of Jupiter. Rather than reading her work in order, I’m dipping into her collections rather haphazardly. As a form, I love short stories. There is so much precision in Munro’s tales, and so much beauty. Nothing is overdone, but little nuances still fill the text, and the stories themselves are all perfectly crafted vignettes which show us the deepest thoughts and feelings of a whole cast of very different characters. I loved the way in which Munro had crafted these tales, and how she had used some of the same protagonists in multiple stories – a clever way in which to span their entire lives without making each separate story too long or overloaded with detail. Munro is not quite a Mansfield to me yet, but she does sparkle, and this collection is marvellous.

Children on Their Birthdays by Truman Capote
As with the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I got straight into these stories from the outset. I love the stunning sense of place which Capote never fails to create, and his characters are both marvellously and deftly constructed. His writing is just perfect. The tales in Children on Their Birthdays are short, but boy, are they powerful and thought provoking.

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
If there’s one author I can read the work of over and over again, it’s Katherine Mansfield. Her writing is absolutely beautiful and she captures the everyday and mundane in the most marvellous of ways. She can make the dull sparkle. Her descriptions are gorgeous, absolutely sublime, and she creates such vivid imagery. Her stories appeal to all the senses – she makes use of sounds, sights, smells, tastes and textures. She beautifully sets every scene. She is a masterful writer – she can say in just a few pages that which other authors struggle to get across in lengthy novels. She is so perceptive of her characters too, however minor they may seem in the great scheme of things. A great example of this is the baby in ‘At the Bay’. She captures every character perfectly, from the young to the old, and clearly has a lot of understanding of her subjects. Her interactions between the young and old are so touching – for example, the scene with Kezia and her grandmother, when Kezia is begging her never to die. She shows the best and worst of people, often amalgamating the two. I find little Lottie and Kezia very endearing. I can’t pick a favourite story in this collection, I’m afraid. I simply adore them all. They are perfect stories to read when the sun is shining or when the rain is falling. I love the different subjects and settings which Mansfield makes use of. The stories do not feel remotely similar to one another, aside from their shrewd perceptions and exquisite language.

Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf
All of Virginia Woolf’s short stories are like tiny masterpieces. Her vignettes contain so much emotion and such vivid characters and scenes. Her balance of plot and characters are perfect, as is the clarity and beauty of her writing. A lovely collection – I just wish it had been longer!

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Sunday Snapshot: Five Books Set in Paris

A new feature for The Literary Sisters is entitled the ‘Sunday Snapshot’.  Each Sunday (if we remember!) we will be posting a list of five books on a common theme or genre.  The first of our Sunday Snapshots takes the beautiful city of Paris as its theme.

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
I’ve not seen many recommended reading lists for Paris which do not include Barbery’s wonderful novel.  It tells the intertwined stories of a quirky young girl named Paloma and the concierge of the building in which her family lives, Renee.  Whilst the protagonists on the surface of it seem to have little in common, they form rather a heartwarming friendship.  7 Rue de Grenelle provides the foundation for the relationship they build.  The social and political aspects of the story do not cloud its plot – rather, they add to it and make it a believable and fully rounded tale.  Barbery adds to this her lightness of touch, lovely writing style and deftness at crafting a memorable tale.

2. The Cat – Colette
I waxed lyrical about The Cat in an earlier review posted on The Literary Sisters.  Colette’s stunning writing and the way in which she makes Paris a character in itself makes the novella worth reading alone, whether you are a feline fan or not.

3. Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
This is not a happy novel by any means, but I believe that it is an important one.  It tells the stories of two separate protagonists from different time periods – a young girl named Sarah living in Paris during the Second World War, and a journalist of sorts who is investigating the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942, in which Sarah and her family were taken away.  I shan’t give any more of the plot away, but suffice to say that it is a startling and heartbreaking story about a little known event of the Second World War.

4. Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
As with Sarah’s Key, Down and Out in Paris and London is not a happy book.  Far from it, in fact.  It tells, in Orwell’s marvellous style, of his struggles as a burgeoning author in the city.  It is filled with poverty and sadness at every turn, but it somehow still manages to be a fascinating piece of non-fiction of a world which is both lost and still present.

5. The Wine of Solitude – Irene Nemirovsky
It would be an obvious choice to put Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise on this list, but I have opted for one of her lesser known works. The Wine of Solitude opens with the character of eight-year-old Hélène Karol, an only child who lives with her parents, grandmother and governess in a tiny town in the Ukraine. The Wine of Solitude is extremely evocative of the places and period in which it is set, from St Petersburg to Paris, and from Finland to rural France. The different sections of the novel all encompass one or two of these settings, the descriptions of which are perfectly balanced and really build up a picture of each city or tiny town in the mind of the reader. The human psyche has been portrayed incredibly well and so poignantly by both author and translator, and we follow Hélène’s formative years to several different countries as she falls in and out of love and loses her innocence.

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Flash Reviews (24th July 2013)

The Cat by Colette
I adore cats, and I adore French literature, so when I spotted this wonderfully titled novella in Black Gull Books on a trip to Camden last week, I just had to have it.  There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes.  Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too.  It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title.  I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic.  Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.

The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think.  This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes.  The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us.  All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.

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Brett Helquist is the marvellous illustrator of ‘ASOUE’

The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket
I am so enjoying reading my way through Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’, which I for some reason missed when I was a child. The Miserable Mill is the fourth in the series (or ‘Book the Fourth’, as the title states), and it is one of the most fun to date.  The entire series is crammed to the very top with peril, adventure and the unexpected, and the most wonderful amalgamation of words, which my child self would have delighted over.  I love the Baudelaire children as a unit, and the way in which their particular skill sets allow them to be such a good team is really quite adorable.  The writing style of these tales too is wonderful, as is the way in which they appeal to both children and adults.  I shall move swiftly onto Book the Fifth as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Maria Edgeworth

The Bracelets by Maria Edgeworth
I have been wanting to read Edgeworth’s work for quite some time now, and jumped at the chance of downloading some of her books onto my Kindle.  In retrospect, I don’t think this is her best book to begin with, as it is certainly not making me want to carry on with her longer works.  The storyline here is rather odd, and it feels too old fashioned at times, even for a novella written in 1850.  I struggle to sum up what the story is about, as it merely felt like an entire heap of young girls proclaiming their undying love and then sudden hatred of each other, and all vying to get their hands on a bracelet made of plaited hair.  Eww.  Edgeworth’s writing is lovely – that I do not dispute – but I am loath to enjoy books with obvious morals tacked onto the end of them, and sadly, The Bracelets falls into that camp.