The Spoon Stealer

 The Spoon Stealer by Lesley Crewe


I read the author's first novel, Relative Happiness, several years ago but didn't enjoy it, so when The Spoon Stealer was chosen as one of our Book Club selections this year I was hoping for better. Unfortunately I didn't like this one either.  

The story is about Emmeline Darling, a well-meaning, if somewhat loud and pushy woman, and her dog Vera, who she talks to and who it appears talks back to her. I was never quite sure if I was meant to believe in the talking dog or to see it as the author's method of revealing Emmeline's inner dialogue. I'm going with the latter.  

Emmeline is living in England when the story opens, far from her childhood home in Nova Scotia. She's been out of touch with her family for many years after making decisions of which they didn't approve. It's more complicated than that of course, and to give credit where credit is due, Emmeline's life is interesting, if increasingly unrealistic. 

She joins a memoir writing group at her local library, meeting the women who will become her best friends as the story progresses. Each week they read to the group parts of what they've written, with Emmeline's generating the most interest, gasps, tears and generally over-the-top reactions. I found the writing in the memoir passages to be better than that in the general story. It's less dramatic, more concise, and much more enjoyable to read. I wish the whole book had been written like that.

When Emmeline learns that she has inherited her family's farm in Nova Scotia, she and Vera plan a trip back to her childhood home, hoping to make peace with her family and figure out what to do with the property. As they all get to know each other again, more of her memoir is revealed, with the last few secrets brought to light only at the end, though you do begin to suspect some of them earlier. 

The last two chapters - oh, dear, the last two chapters - tell us how Emmeline, the all-wise, magnanimous saviour they've all been needing, has arranged to see that everyone gets exactly what they need/want to make their dreams come true and live better lives.   

I wanted to like this, but all feels too exaggerated and improbable. The best I can say is it might have been better if it was toned down. Way down.  

Resonance

 Resonance by A.J. Scudiere

Dr. Rebecca Sorenson, biologist, has discovered 6-legged frogs near her family's home, and she's hearing reports of bees hovering in column formation and birds leaving their normal migratory patterns. Dr. David Carter, geologist, is seeing changes in the geology of the rocks he's digging up. Drs. Jordan Abellard and Jillian Brookwood of the CDC are investigating the rising number of cases of people dying only a few hours after complaining of stomach distress or ear pain. And all of these things appear to be happening in hotspots where magnetic polarity has begun to reverse, hotspots that are quickly expanding. The earth seems headed toward a total polar reversal with unimaginable consequences for all living things. 

There's a great build-up to the shift happening as the scientists share their findings, suggest explanations, and face the terrifying reality of what is about to happen. It's tense and exciting and then, suddenly, the shift has happened and focus switches from what could happen to figuring out what has happened and how to live now. Half the population is dead, but a few keep slipping in and out of consciousness. Every time they go "under", their vital stats drop dangerously low, but when they wake up, they clearly remember living in a different reality while unconscious in this one. 

I found it confusing when a character was dead on one page and on the next was having a conversation about other dead people who weren't dead at all in the last chapter. But just before it got annoying the explanation came, bringing a whole new set of questions with it. Earth...or maybe time...split when the poles reversed creating two different earth's or realities. While under in one they are awake in the other, but this is only true for a few people; the rest are alive in one and dead in the other, or dead in both. The determining factors for who ended up in each world become a matter of much speculation. More complications arise when two of them choose to stay in one particular reality and then have to figure out how to get rid of themselves in the other one. 

I'm sure I have you completely confused but, truly, you should read the book, which is much better written than this attempt at a summary and will make it all clear to you. Well, most of it. I thought it fizzled out a little at the end and left a lot of unanswered questions, but then half the fun of sci-fi is being left with inexplainable things to think about for days. This page-turner was that nerdy kind of fun.          

The Mitford Murders

 The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

The author, Jessica Fellowes, is the niece of Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey. Jessica wrote the popular series of Downton Abbey companion books and is a well known public speaker on the subject. This is her first fiction book and she's followed it up with four more in The Mitford Murder Series.

In this one Louise Cannon, eighteen and living in poverty in London with her loving mother and a degenerate uncle, dreams of living a better life. Her dream seems to be realized when she lands a job as nursery assistant at the estate of Lord and Lady Redesdale. There she finds a friend in Nancy, the oldest daughter of the family, but remains fearful her uncle will come and cause trouble for her.

When Florence Shore, a woman known to the family's Nanny, is murdered on a local train, Nancy and Louise look for clues as to who the murderer could be. They enlist the help of Guy Sullivan, a railway policeman who helped Louise when she first arrived and is grateful for any chance to see her again. 

Switched identities, a will conveniently changed just before the murder, and lots of secrets and lies all come together to create a mystery that involves both the the upstairs and downstairs cast of characters. It probably falls into the "cozy mystery" category, which I think I understand to mean lighter reading fare with happy endings for all but the guilty, who are rightfully hauled off by police to answer for their crimes. If I've got that wrong please let me know because I'm still not sure about the meaning of "cozy" when it's paired with "mystery".  

The Mitford Murders provided an enjoyable few hours of diversion with a good story, nice writing, and likeable characters. And it's always fun seeing how the other half lives - the upper class lifestyle, beautiful houses, elegant fashion, the lovely richness of it all. I did enjoy it but I probably won't continue with the series. Then again, one never knows; a good sale or another day's need for a pleasant bit of escapism might easily change my mind. 

The Death of a Salesman and Babbitt

I've been meaning to read these two for a long time. The reviews didn't particularly interest me but they've both gotten a lot of attention over the years and I was curious to know the stories. I began enthusiastically enough, lost interest part way through both, and had to force myself to finish them.  

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a play about the mental decline of Willy Loman as his disappointments pile up and his dreams slip away. Willy lives with an illusion of life as he'd like it to be, but his reality is far different and facing it is more than he can take. The few pages of this book are filled with enough emotional pain, anger and sadness to haunt me for a while I think. I'd like to see the play performed - maybe there's a film I can watch - because I'm not convinced I have sufficient imagination to be a good reader of plays. Nevertheless, my goal was to find out what the story was about and I have done that.


Babbit by Sinclair Lewis
 was described in reviews as a "satire of middle class American life", and a "comic novel of mid-life crisis". I listened to an audio version, which usually helps me get through books I'm not looking forward to reading, but oh, my, I found it dull. And not very funny, or even funny at all. George Babbitt is an unlikable character in a book filled with unlikeable characters, and his story is long and boring. I'm sure it has literary merit, I just can't work up enough enthusiasm to find it. But, as with Death of a Salesman, I wanted to know what it was about so mission accomplished. 

Trick

Trick by Domenico Starnone

I'm not sure yet how I feel about this one but maybe I can figure it out as I write.

Daniele Mallarico is a successful illustrator whose best days are behind him. At over 70 years of age he doesn't get as much, or as lucrative, work as he once did but he manages to keep his hand in. Recovering from minor surgery at home while working on illustrations for Henry James' short story, The Jolly Corner, he receives a call from his daughter, Betta. She asks if he can come to Naples to watch his four year old grandson while Betta and her husband attend a mathematics conference. His first instinct is to decline, but parental guilt sets in and he agrees.

All I knew of this book was that it told the story of a boy and his grandfather getting to know each other. It sounded charming, heartwarming. It was not. By the time I was done I wanted to throttle the kid and his parents. I understand the book is about the grandfather coming to terms with the changes that aging brings, but I found myself more focused on the boy and his emotional problems. He can't seem to distinguish fantasy from reality and he has no feeling except for himself. Children his age are capable of compassion for others, but when his grandfather is in real distress and needs his help, the boy calmly says no and goes to watch cartoons. This is the kind of child that ends up as the unsub on Criminal Minds.

Kirkus Reviews describes this book as "vivid and devastating" and it is truly both, so painful you want to look away, but so real and present that you can't. I was particularly drawn to the sections on Daniele's memories, and moved by the mental/emotional storm wrought by his desperation to find meaning in his later years and declining abilities. A fascinating character - passionate, intelligent, gifted, deeply flawed - he's facing the consequences of his less than stellar track record as husband, father and grandfather.

As he works on the illustrations for the James book, many parallels are drawn between the two stories. If you're going to read this one, it's a good idea to read at least a summary of The Jolly Corner first, and then the introduction to this book. It's a complicated story and I think all three are needed to gain an understanding of what the author is saying; even the title, that one word "Trick", can have different connotations. You'll probably spend more hours thinking about this one than actually reading its 191 pages, and that alone is a great reason to read it.

So in the end I did like it, not so much for the plot but for how it's told, because it's amazingly well-written and constructed. The story is multi-layered and the characters complicated and messy. It was exhilarating to be inside Daniele's head riding this mental roller-coaster with him. He's a great character. 

The four year old Mario...he's just creepy.  



A Virtuous Woman

 A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

"She hasn't been dead four months and I've already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze."

With this opening sentence, Jack begins telling the story of Ruby, his wife of 25 years who recently passed away from cancer. The chapters alternate between his voice and hers, also moving between past and present, but it isn't difficult to follow. Their voices are so distinct that it's easy to tell which one you're reading.

Ruby, raised by doting parents with the means to make her life easy, never had to do much for herself. When a man of questionable character starts paying her attention, starry-eyed she believes everything he says. After they marry she realizes her mistake; he lies, cheats, and lives it up while she works manual labour jobs to provide for them. When he dies, she welcomes Jack's quiet steadiness into her life. 

Jack, twenty years older than Ruby, has lived alone and never thought of marrying until he met her. As a tenant farmer he has little to offer her, but they meet each other's need for a quiet, dependable life partner so they marry and make a good life together. 

A Virtuous Woman isn't a romance but it is a story of love, true and wise, and of grief and second chances and hope. It's told mostly through their memories and though there's not a lot of plot, the characters ring true and their voices are vivid and intimate and you feel Jack and Ruby are talking directly to you. These are real people, the kind of folks who could live just down the road from you. 

I loved this one.


 

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