"The Light Between Oceans"

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I feared a romance, a sappy one, but am happy to report the romance is only a part of this story. I read it because it's my book club's June selection, and because it's about an island. I can't help myself. I'm a sucker for islands and stories about them. It's an obsession really.

The setting is the tiny island of Janus Rock off the coast of Australia, where Tom Sherbourne is the lighthouse keeper. The isolation and the tedious work make it a perfect place for Tom to find balance again after experiencing the death and destruction of WWI as a soldier. There are no roads on the island and Tom's is the only house, but he gets leave every two or three years and there is a supply boat that comes occasionally.

After one of his leaves, he brings back a young wife, Isabel. A few years later, while tending the grave of her own stillborn baby, she hears the cry of another one. A man, dead, and a baby, still alive, have washed up on shore in a small boat. Isabel, suspecting the dead man to be the child's father and the mother to have been lost overboard, convinces Tom not to report it right away. As each day passes, it seems more right to care for her and give her a good home than it does to take her to the mainland, possibly to a life with no parents at all.

When the baby - they call her Lucy - is two years old, they return to the mainland on leave and they begin to see that their decision has some far-reaching consequences. The fragile little family they've so carefully bound together begins to unravel.

There are no real "bad guys" here. Mistakes are made, but not with intent to harm. Very human people make very bad decisions and people suffer. Everyone suffers. There are questions to which there are no good answers because what helps one will hurt another and we care about all of them. A choice must be made between this good thing, and this other good thing, and either choice will leave a trail of unspeakable pain. What would you or I do in those circumstances? Isn't it wonderful when a book takes you to that place?

I'm always fascinated with first lines and found a loaded one in this book:

"On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross."  

This sentence sets you up for the whole book. When you read "miracle" something in you lifts because you know something good is about to happen. Miracles are always good. Lots of impossibly bad things happen but no one calls them miracles. That word is preserved for the impossibly good things. Then a fraction of a second later you read where she is: "kneeling at the cliff's edge". Something in you senses that whatever is about to happen is dangerous. She's at the cliff's edge in more ways than one. Then, she is tending the "small, newly made driftwood cross". That thing in you that sensed joy, then danger, now senses grief. It's a "small" cross, "newly made", so the loss was probably a child and probably recent. All those emotions have been triggered in the reader in that one opening sentence and moves you into the story with a bit of excitement, a bit of trepidation, and some compassion. The trepidation increases three sentences later when she whispers over the grave:

"...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
Somehow we know that temptation is exactly what is coming.

There were some weak spots in the writing, and I found the flashbacks to Tom's past were too long sometimes and left me wishing we could get back to the present, but it is a good, very good story. This is the author's first novel so there's no backlist to greedily order from. I must wait for more. I suspect not every novel she writes will be set on an island, sigh, but her story-telling ability is wonderful so I'm looking forward to whatever she does next.

This one is a most definite recommendation. I loved it.  

"Mrs. Dalloway" and "The Shoemaker's Wife"

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I'm not a fan of "stream of consciousness" writing, so right off the bat this book had a strike against it. However, it's one of those books that everybody has read and about which reams of ecstatic reviews have been written so I put it on my "Guilt List" and finally got around to reading it. To my surprise, I liked it.

  I didn't spend a lot of time analyzing it, but it surely is not a book you can read quickly or without thought. It requires something of the reader, always a good thing I think.

It takes place over the course of one day, ending with a party held at the home of Clarissa Dalloway. Beginning with Clarissa's thoughts about the party, and a reunion with an old love, the point of view moves from person to person as the various invited guests think about their lives, their problems and the coming party. It sounds odd to describe it, but it flowed very well and moving from inside one person's head to the next wasn't strange at all.

Much could be said about this one, and has been by more qualified reviewers, but as I've been saying, in the past few months my reading has been more for distraction than anything else and I've not been spending a lot of time thinking about what I read. Still, I'm glad I read this. It's a short book, but it made a big impact and I think these characters will stay with me.

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

This is one of those rich, epic stories you can get lost in and that make you feel sorry to turn the last page. It tells the story of Ciro Lazzari, from the time he and his brother were left at an orphanage as children right through to the end of his life. Beginning in a tiny mountain village in Italy, it follows him to America where he becomes apprenticed to a shoemaker and where he crosses paths with a girl, Enza Ravenelli, whom he had met briefly while he was still in Italy. Enza has become a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera House and has a comfortable life with some famous friends and a handsome suitor. Fate has a different plan for Ciro and Enza however.

I'm not an avid reader of romances, but this one held my attention. To qualify as "good" for me it has to have more than just romance. I like a book to take me someplace, a different location, a different time, a different industry, a different culture and then I can enjoy the romance as it's fleshed out on the bones of an interesting story.  The Shoemaker's Wife offers a look at Italy, it's geography, history, culture and religious structure then moves to early 20th century America - New York and Minnesota. It opened up to me the glamorous world of the opera and the more mundane life of a shoemaker, then the difficult years of World War One, all of which added interest and detail and set a foundation for the romance that followed.

The writing, the character development and the story were all good, so if you're looking for what my mother used to call a "good yarn", you should take a look at this. I found it fun and relaxing to read with geography and history lessons thrown in for nothing. What's not to like? Hope you enjoy it!

"Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore" and "How I Learned To Cook"

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

This book is fun. It offers old books, secret codes, a clandestine society, and the perfect quaint, old bookseller. It's a bibliophile's dream come true. Or at least it started out that way.

I was hooked in the first few pages. The pace was good and the writing intelligent. I was fascinated with the puzzle that was unfolding and eagerly followed the main character, Clay Jannon, as he tried to figure out what was going on at his new workplace. He worked the night shift at the bookshop and began to notice that the only people coming in were a few regulars who always returned one book and took another from a particular section on the shelves. They never bought anything, just borrowed and returned.

Clay's new girlfriend, Kat, works at Google and is a tech expert. Between them they use their technical knowledge and some pretty cool equipment to put together the pieces of the puzzle and find out what the real purpose of the bookshop is. Their investigative work involves a trip to New York to the headquarters of a secret society, with long black robes, underground chambers  and the whole nine yards. It was a fun romp until near the end, when basically nothing happened. There was this huge build up that for me just fell flat at the end. I'd still recommend it, for the sheer fun of the ride, but I do so wish for a more satisfying conclusion.

How I Learned To Cook, edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan

This is a collection of 40 short writings on how various chefs got their start in the Restaurant business. The subjects include such culinary greats as Mario Batali, Heston Blumenthal, Rick Bayless, Mara Martin, Nancy Silverton and Masaharu Morimoto.

Some of the stories are hilarious, some of them inspiring and a couple are, well, let's just say disturbing. One chef in particular has a colourful vocabulary. Actually it's more gross than colourful, but let's move on.

It's an interesting book, but most of it reinforced my secret (not so secret now...) dislike of chefs in general. I admire their work; I hate the way they treat people. We've all heard the stories of temperamental chefs exploding in the kitchen when something isn't done right, but honestly I thought the stories must have been exaggerated. Apparently not. Most, if not all, of the writers of these stories have been at the unpleasant end of their superior's rage. There is yelling and screaming and throwing of equipment and food. Tantrums, in other words. Like two year olds. I really don't get it. (And yes, I know that not all chefs are like that. There sure are plenty who make my point though.) I know they are experts in their field and have worked hard to get where they are, but so what? There are experts in every field who have worked hard and they seem generally able to conduct themselves with a little dignity and consideration for others. What gives chefs their air of superiority and sense of entitlement? It's nauseating.

But...don't let my little rant keep you from the book. If you are interested in food and the cooking of it, you'll probably love these stories.