Listen to the Child, Spin, Galore, Little Lord Fauntleroy

Listen to the Child by Elizabeth Howard
Good reviews convinced me to read this, but I'm afraid I didn't find it well written at all. The characters were one dimensional, it seemed bitterly biased against Christians, and the ending came so suddenly I was sure it was a mistake; it wasn't. It left many of the story lines unfinished, and included at least one that seemed to have no purpose other than to add to the overall sadness and misery. The one thing nobody in this book ever did is "Listen to the Child". It's based on an actual situation, in which desperately poor children were taken from the London slums, usually with the parents permission but not always, and shipped off to Canada where life was supposed to be glorious for all. Most of the kids were put in homes where they were nothing more than unpaid servants to mean, abusive people. They were starved, beaten, and left out in the cold to sleep. Promises to check up on them were not kept. 

It could have been a good "historical fiction" book. The basic plot is there, but the writing just wasn't up to it.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
It's been a long time since I read a science fiction novel, mostly because those I had read left me quite disappointed. I want a good story, believable characters, decent writing, and some interesting science in my science fiction. Something in the write-ups I read made me think I might find at least some of that in Spin, so I gave sci-fi another chance.

And it was amazing, so good I couldn't stop reading because every page left me needing to know what would happen on the next one. I forgot to do laundry and meals were late. I devoured this book. The story gripped me immediately, the characters were believable and well fleshed out, the writing was excellent, and the science, oh the science. It was exciting and terrifying and beautiful. It stretched the imagination but was not so out there as to make you shake your head and dismiss it as too far-fetched. It was just fetched far enough. A scientist might disagree, but I'm a reader, not a scientist, and I was mesmerized. 

It begins with 3 childhood friends who sneak outside after dark just in time to see the stars disappear. They were there, then they weren't, like someone just turned them off.  Thus begins the tale of how these three grow up in a changed and now dangerous world. There's some terra-forming of another planet, a human being who is not from earth, and government secrets galore - no shortage of interesting plot lines.

This was so good I think I'll try another sci-fi. Any recommendations? 

Galore by Michael Crummey
Vivid, gritty, and well written; all the things I love about Michael Crummey's novels. There's a feeling of honesty about them, sometimes painfully so, but that's what pulls me in and holds me there. I loved Sweetland, found River Thieves more brutal than I could handle, and would place Galore somewhere in between.

This story covers several generations of two families in a small area of Newfoundland beginning in the late 18th century and on into the early 20th. All the harsh realities of life on the rock and the ups and downs of a fishing village dependent on nature are described for you here. Described doesn't even say it really. It's more like he breathes it out and you breathe it in. You live there while you're reading the book and it takes a bit of re-acclimatizing when you've finished.

The characters are intensely human, quirky, unpretentious, some downright weird, usually one or two with eerie overtones. There's always something about their stories to give you pause, and maybe make you think about things you had not before considered. There's not much cheer in these books, but I'm fine with that, having been a Thomas Hardy fan for too many years to need happy endings anymore.

Crummey's books are total immersion experiences, which can leave you holding your breath at times and will profoundly engage all your senses as you are absorbed into a time and place not your own. 

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Written for children, this is the sweet story of Cedric, a little boy who lives in happy, if straitened, circumstances with his gentle, adoring mother in America, until it is discovered that he is the sole surviving heir of his cantankerous old grandfather in England. He is to be a Lord and inherit a grand estate, which his grandfather is not happy about but it's the law so he has no choice. He expects to find Cedric dull witted and uncouth, but is in for a surprise and even his hard heart will not be able to resist Cedric's kindness, sincerity, and beauty. He begins to love his grandson, and that brings about a softening of his own heart, to the great relief of all who know him.

It's a lovely story for children, if a bit hard to swallow for older readers. Nobody on earth is as perfect a specimen of humanity as Cedric. He always feels, says and does the right thing. He loves everybody and everybody loves him in return. His mother, too, is without flaw; graceful, beautiful, kind, gentle, etc. In another novel this wouldn't work at all, but this is for children and it sets a good example. And besides, the ending is very satisfying and makes you glad you read it. I think I liked this better than The Secret Garden, though I don't expect that to be a popular opinion.  

And Six More...

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I enjoyed reading this little book, but I'm not as thrilled
with it as everyone else seems to be. I don't know if I
just wasn't in the mood or if I'm too dull to grasp the
deeper meaning, but honestly I found it not all that

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
I enjoyed this while I was reading it, but now I can't
remember anything about it. I may have read it too quickly, or at a time when I was pre-occupied with other things. Lots of people rate it highly, for me it just didn't stick.

Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
I'm so glad I read this. It's historical fiction that centers around the 1917 explosion in Halifax Harbour when a heavily loaded munitions ship collided with another vessel. The story itself was just so-so, although I liked some of the characters and found myself caring what happened to them. The strength of this novel is in two things: its portrayal of Canada and her people in 1917 and its so-real-you-could-almost-feel-it description of the explosion. I'm a Maritimer, so of course I've seen the anniversary documentaries and read the articles, even read another novel set in the aftermath. But I've never read anything like this. I don't think I had any real idea how massive, how powerful it was or the extent and scope of the damage. The way he sets the stage for what's coming builds the tension until I almost didn't want to know. The first chapter is Sunday, then each day is another chapter. Thursday morning it happens. He's so smart in his telling of it that when you're reading it you hold your breath, you marvel as you watch what happens moment by moment. The earthquake it caused, the brutal air concussion, and the tidal wave were new to me, or at least this level of detail was. The effect those things had on the people, animals, buildings and land was nightmarish. I feel like I watched it in slow motion. If you're curious about what happened that day, read this. Any weak spots in the plot are more than compensated for by the way the author pulls you into this historical reality. It's more than a novel; it's an experience.

The Plague by Albert Camus
I put this off year after year until now just to discover it's really good. It's not the Hollywood style story about plague with all the blood and gore (there is a bit) and dramatic death scenes. Its not so much about the sick people (it is a little) as it is about the rest of the town and how people find different ways to cope with the chaos going on around them. The medical people, town leaders, church and business people, and all the folks who care for sick and dying family members have to find a way to get up every day and carry on. I would never have imagined it would be so engrossing. Well worth the read.  

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova
Lisa Genova's books allow us to share the experience of a person suffering a debilitating disease. This time it's ALS and the victim is a world famous pianist at the height of his career. We watch as he loses control of his body, and his life, piece by piece. It's hard to read, but I find her books fascinating for what they teach me. I wasn't terribly keen on the story this time, finding the characters rather flat and the writing not as good as her other work, but I'm glad I read it. I will keep reading them as long as she keeps writing them because I learn so much from them. I think my favourites are still Left Neglected and Still Alice, but I liked Inside the O'Briens as well. Love Anthony and Every Note Played are at the bottom of the list for me. I was interested to read that her purpose for these novels is more to create awareness and generate funding than to entertain. With that goal in mind, I say mission accomplished.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Loved this one. Lily is a young girl growing up on a peach farm in South Carolina with her abusive father and a black woman (the cook) named Rosaleen. Rosaleen is stubborn and feisty and when she insults some of the racist men in town she is beaten and locked up in jail. Lily breaks her out and they set out on a long walk that will lead them to a bee-keepers farm run by three sisters, two/thirds of whom welcome them in. As the connection between Lily's dead mother and the sisters comes to light, Lily and Rosaleen begin to heal, finding acceptance among kindred spirits . That may sound corny, but this book is not. It's well written, poignant, and funny. A strong story with vivid, eccentric characters. I feel like I stepped inside the time and place depicted as soon as I read the first page, and I had a hard time putting it down. Excellent.

A Few More...

Cruel and Usual Punishment by Nonie Darwish

This was hard to read because of the subject matter, but it was on my shelf for a very long time and needed to be either read or discarded, which I didn't feel I could do. I didn't find it particularly well written. It's quite emotional, but anyone living such experiences would be emotional in the telling of their story. There is some good information in here, and it is worth reading. 

Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan

I did not enjoy this much. The book was heavy on Joy Davidman's "finding herself", which included leaving her husband and children in America for months while she had her "me time" in England, even when they were struggling to make ends meet. It doesn't paint a very flattering picture of her. I was disappointed with other things too. When "The Inklings" met at their usual pub, we are frequently told about the wonderful conversations they had, the brilliant exchange of ideas and philosophies, but we are never allowed in. We are told they happened, then it moves on to the next scene. I also question whether Lewis actually gushed over Davidman's work as much as this book implies; it seems odd that such great writing wouldn't be better known. 

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries

A lovely surprise. I'm not sure what I expected but it wasn't this. It's a small, hard cover book that looks like an art or gift book, but each chapter tells a story. The Thames has frozen over 40 times in recorded history and there's a fictional story set in each of those times. They are quite short but every one of them quickly grabs your attention and takes you to that time and place. The characters are vivid and the plots are wonderfully imaginative. Highly recommend.

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

After watching Downton Abbey and reading others in the upstairs/downstairs genre, I found this one a bit flat. It is an actual, true story, which, if I'd read it first, I might have loved. As it is I didn't enjoy the writing and found myself ambivalent about the girl who is telling her story. I'm probably just jaded from all the glitz and glamour and drama - oh the drama - of the fictional stories.   

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Loved it. Every time I read Dickens, I'm struck again by the timelessness of his tales. His books will never finish being relevant because basic human nature doesn't change. His stories are sentimental, but you can't help admiring his "good" characters. They may be too perfect, but they always leave me with some noble virtue to aspire to. His evil characters may be too thoroughly evil, but it's encouraging to see all that vileness bound up in one character and then see him get his comeuppance in the end. I always come away from his books understanding better how kindness can change people, both the giving and the receiving of it, and how selfishness is equally damaging to both the giver and the receiver. And besides all of that, you get a great story and Dickens' unvarnished look at the social problems of his time. But my favourite thing of all is his tone. Call it sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, wry or what you will, I love it and it's what keeps me coming back. 

I apologize for the lack of book cover pictures. I tried to use them, but they simply won't stay where I put them. When I get the post looking just right, I go to preview and see massive white spaces everywhere and the jpegs all over the place. I've never had this much trouble getting it to work before, but it was impossible today so I gave up. Words will have to do. 

An Unexpected Loss, and the First Books of 2019

I began the new year eagerly getting organized and setting new goals, then Jan 26th came, and in that one day my whole world changed. That morning my sister was out visiting; by late that evening, she had left us. Shortness of breath turned into an ambulance ride, that turned into a team of doctors scrambling to find out what was happening to her, and that led to one of them coming to tell us they'd been unable to save her. She'd had a massive blood clot in her lungs and she was gone. Just gone. I'm still trying to get my head around that. I made arrangements, stood beside the urn her ashes were in, helped clean out her apartment, and spent months tying up all the loose ends of her life, and still I can't believe she's gone. I don't know how long the denial stage of grief lasts, but I seem to be stuck in it. It just seems impossible, ludicrous even, to think that she's not here, that she won't be at family get-togethers, that I can't talk with her on fb messenger, that I won't be buying her a birthday gift in September. I feel almost angry when I think how stupid it all is. This can't be true. It cannot really be happening.

Needless to say, I haven't done anything about posting. I couldn't read for a while, couldn't make sense of the words or even remember what I had just read. After a couple of weeks I was able to get back at it a little, but I'm not up to writing much. I'll just list the books I've read so far this year with a line or two about why I liked or didn't like them.

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson
A story about a man who drove a school bus transporting special needs kids for a year. It was inspiring how he learned to relate to each student on their own terms. It was also funny at times, and overall a good read.

Do You Realize? by Kevin H. Kuhn
This was an unusual novel about a man who receives a watch that will let him travel back in time, but only 10 times. It get's complicated when he attempts to fix things in the past. It's part fantasy and part philosophy. It was much better than I'm making it sound. I liked it.

Through the Children's Gate by Adam Gopnik
A memoir about Gopnik and his family experiencing life in New York City. Toward the end it seemed more like a series of essays than a memoir, but it was interesting, and well written.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
Russell and her husband, who works for the Lego company, moved to Denmark where he would work at their head office for a year. I love travel books but this one didn't appeal to me. She interviewed a lot of people about their level of happiness, but I was looking for descriptions of the countryside and more about Danish culture. All I got from it is that I no longer have any desire to go to Denmark.

To be continued...

The Last Books of 2018

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
I have conflicting thoughts about this one. I didn't like it, there's no question about that, but the vivid images, good and bad, that it planted in my head feel permanent. I have to give the author credit for drawing me in and making me feel like a part of the story whether I wanted to be or not. That's good writing. In this book's world, dogs are given human consciousness, which seems to burden them with the combined negative traits of both dogs and humans. There are parts that are touching, but also parts that are heartless and cruel. Dogs kill each other in bloody, violent scenes, plotting and conniving just like the worst of human beings. Not an enjoyable read at all, but maybe I just missed the point.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Well this was a nice surprise! It sat on my shelf for 10 years while I tried to avoid looking at it. I disliked the movie, so didn't want to read the book. Will I ever learn? It's one of the titles on my Guilt List, the books I feel I should have read at some point in my life but never did, so I made it my goal to read it in 2018. I was about 50 pages in when I realized, holy cow, this is good! Thackeray's writing (which I'd never read before) is nothing short of sparkling. He's smart, funny, wry and easy to read. It's a lengthy book, but I didn't at any point become tired or bored with it. On the contrary, I found it quite enjoyable. The things that made me dislike the movie proved to be Hollywood's usual over-emphasis on the negative and the unpleasant. The book is much more balanced and allows you to make up your own mind about various characters. I'm so glad I took the plunge and read this. Truly great writing.

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
This is my second reading of this novel and I liked it even more this time than the last. I'd forgotten how comforting Pilcher's books are. The characters care about each other and love the places they live. There's something warm and soothing in that. The plot had a couple of holes, but I liked the characters so well, and the setting, that the imperfections didn't matter. Winter Solstice tells the stories of an eclectic group of people who end up in the same place at the same time as Christmas approaches. As they form relationships and learn each others secrets, the reader falls into the story without even realizing it's happening. To come to the end is to leave a place you'll miss and people you'll wish you could stay in touch with. I think I'm going to read another Rosamunde Pilcher this winter. I look forward to the sheer comfort of her writing. 

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva 
This is my second reading, but this time I enjoyed it. Last year it didn't appeal to me at all. Weird, isn't it? It's a fictional tale about Dickens and the events leading up to his writing of A Christmas Carol. There's a lot about his wife and family, and his relationships with his publishers, but it is fiction so it's hard to know which parts may be true and which not. That's the frustrating part of fiction about real people. Nevertheless it was nice story for the Christmas season.

A Cup of Christmas Tea by Tom Hegg
I've loved this for years. My previous post about it is here.

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas 
Another one I've enjoyed for a long time and try to read every year. Previous post here.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My favourite Christmas book ever. So much better than any of the movies. A previous post for this one can be found here.

A Christmas Promise by Anne Perry
I'm iffy on this one. Parts of it are lovely, and touching, but parts of it drag on and make you wish something would just happen. Then when things do begin to happen, it rolls along quickly and changes the tone of the book considerably. After a beginning of little-match-girl-like poignancy there's a violent murder, illegal opium dealing and a hooker. So it didn't turn out to be the story I expected, but it had its moments.

October's Reading

Farther Afield by Miss Read - Miss Read breaks her ankle, leaving her dependent on friends and neighbours for help. She stays with her friend, Amy, for a while, and ends up joining her on an unexpected vacation to Greece when Amy's husband is unable/unwilling to go. Much of this one takes place outside of Fairacre, which is a change, but a nice one. I think I have only a couple left in the Fairacre series. I hate to see it end, but the Thrush Green series awaits. I try to avoid series generally, but these books are absolutely delicious.

The Break by Katherena Vermette -  The "break" is a large empty lot in the city of Winnipeg where a young Aboriginal girl is beaten and raped. The story is about her family and how they relate to her and to one another in the aftermath. As in all families, things are complicated and healing is hard to come by, but it does come. Full of strong female characters, vivid, heart-breaking and heart-warming, this story will stay with you. It doesn't feel like fiction, and I expect it's all too real for many women. A must read.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino - a wonderful, unique reading experience. It begins with "The Reader" getting ready to read the book. He reads it and finds that there is a problem with the copy he has. He goes back to the bookstore only to find the "Other Reader" has had the same problem. They get new books that they think will continue the story they began in the last one, but alas it is a new beginning altogether. Things continue along this vein, with each new beginning effortlessly reeling you in. "The Reader" and "The Other Reader" set out to get to the bottom of this conundrum, developing a romantic relationship as they work. It's great fun to read, but it will get in your head a bit and have you questioning why you read and how and whether it matters. This is a literary experiment gone right and I loved it.

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene - It took me many longs months of reading this in small increments to get through it. It's one of those science books that is supposed to be written for non-scientists, but this non-scientist got seriously bogged down in the middle chapters. I was, though, sort of able to follow a basic thread of thought through it and I learned a lot and had my mind blown by some of it. I love reading about how the world works, from the quantum realm to the cosmic. I wouldn't be able to explain the information to anyone else, but I do enjoy taking it in. This one is well written and is put together in such a way that when I got lost, in just a few paragraphs he would take me back to something more general and familiar to help me find my way again. This is fascinating stuff. 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - In the early years of the Russian revolution, 30 yr old Count Rostov is convicted of being a "Former Person" whose loyalty cannot be counted upon, and  sentenced to a life of house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The book takes us through the next three decades of his life within the confines of the hotel, as he finds a way to become a person of purpose, develops relationships with the employees and guests, and becomes a father figure to a child unexpectedly left in his care. It has to be said that imprisonment in a luxury hotel is far from the unspeakable hardship millions of other Russian people suffered in labor camps, so I couldn't work up a lot of sympathy for the Count on that front, but I did admire him and come to like him. In the face of losing his freedom, he didn't wallow in self-pity but instead set about making the most of what he had left and trying to be of some use to others. A few times it felt like things were coming a little too easy for him, but it did make for a good read. And oh, the writing - it's nothing short of sparkling and had me reading the same lines over and over just to take the phrasing in again. It was a fresh, creative concept for a story, with  quirky characters and luminous writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - I read this immediately after A Gentleman in Moscow because I wanted to remind myself of the reality of Stalin's Russia. He was a ruthless dictator who killed millions for something as simple as saying the wrong thing, and who deliberately starved many more millions to death. His labour camps were places where people were dehumanized by brutal conditions and treatment. Many never got out, dying of starvation, freezing to death, or being worked beyond what their bodies could stand. A book like A Gentleman in Moscow can make you forget all that but I don't want to forget. Ivan Denisovitch lived that prison camp life for his ten year sentence. He lived in deplorable conditions, with insufficient food that was barely fit for human consumption, and with people aiming guns at him all day. The physical and mental torment would be enough to cause most to despair, but Ivan kept going, kept hoping his sentence would finish in 2 years and he'd go home, thought he knew even that was a long-shot because they could just arbitrarily decided to add another 10 or 25 years to his sentence with no explanation. This was one of the first books out of Russia that showed the truth about the prison camps, which made Solzhenitsyn not just a brilliant writer, but a hero, a very brave one, who exposed the truth. Everybody should read this so no one ever forgets the horrific crimes against humanity committed by Stalin and the communist party.