Messenger, by Lois Lowry (#3) and Son, by Lois Lowry (#4)

 Messenger by Lois Lowry - The Giver Quartet #3

Things begin to come together in this third book of the series as Kira, Mattie, and the blind man, all from Book Two, continue their stories. The setting is new and the timeline a few years after Book two closes.

Mattie and the blind man (Kira's father) have made a home together in Village, a place where everyone, damaged or whole, is accepted and valued. Here people have always lived in harmony and contentment, but Mattie is beginning to sense changes in attitudes. Selfishness is creeping in, and at the Trade Mart people are trading their better natures for material gain. Villagers, who were once outsiders themselves, begin to feel resentful of newcomers and want the borders closed, for the first time in Village's history shutting out people seeking help and a safe place to stay.

The Forest outside is deteriorating, too, and grows hostile to travelers just as Mattie sets out on a journey to bring Kira to her new home. It becomes clear that Forest does not want them to reach their goal.

At 142 pages this is the shortest of the four books but I think I liked this story best of the three. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out in the last book, Son.

Son by Lois Lowry - The Giver Quartet #4 

This final installment in The Giver Quartet returns us to the shudder-inducing community of the first book and introduces us to Claire, a fourteen year old assigned to be a birthmother. Against all the rules, she spends time with the child she births and they form a bond. Through a series of circumstances Claire ends up on a boat in a storm, then washed up on the shore of a different village with no memory of any of it. When her memory returns she decides to leave the village to search for her son, and this is where it gets a bit bogged down. The description of her years of training to "climb out" of the village followed by the actual climbing out was very detailed and too long.

The Trader is back in this book, and we pick up the stories of Jonas and Kira again (characters from the earlier books) as Claire moves into their village and becomes part of their lives. And we catch up with Gabe, the baby Jonas escaped with (who is Claire's son) in Book 1. It sounds complicated but it does all become reasonably clear.

Although I found Claire's story interesting, and it was good to get answers to a lot of  questions left by the other books, I didn't enjoy this one as much as the others. Toward the end the characters begin to feel more like clich├ęs than real people, and the final resolution seems almost too easy after all the struggle to get there.

Overall I quite liked this series and recommend it to anyone who finds dystopian societies intriguing. 

Gathering Blue-The Giver Quartet#2

 Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

The second book in The Giver Quartet seems to have no connection to the first one. Both are set in dystopian futures, but in different villages with different characters and different cultures.                                                                                                         
In this one Kira, a young girl with a bad leg, attends a hearing to find out if she will be allowed to stay in the village or if she will be left in The Field to be "taken by beasts". People with disabilities are considered useless and Kira would have been sent to the field as baby - because in this village that is "the way" - but for her influential grandfather who made an exception for her. Now, with her grandfather and both parents gone, she is alone with no defender.  

But the elders have other plans for her. The fine needlework skills she learned from her mother lead them to choose her as the Robe -Threader of the future, the one responsible for repairing and completing the stitching on the magnificent robe worn by The Singer when he performs every year at The Gathering. 

Kira's new position provides her with a comfortable place to live, good food, and even a new friend. Thomas, chosen for his wood-working skill, will be responsible for the  carvings on the Singer's staff and is declared The Carver of the future.

Kira and Thomas soon begin to suspect that all is not as it seems in their new roles. Why is there a little girl crying in a room below them? Why has no one ever seen the beasts that are such a large part of village life and lore? And why did Kira's mentor, Annabelle, die so quickly after revealing what she knew about the beasts? Although some of these things become clear, much is left unexplained. 

I had more questions at the end of this one as I did with The Giver because it seemed to stop in the middle of the story. Let's hope it all comes together later on in the series.


 Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

After dropping out of college, Billie Breslin lands a job as Assistant to the Editor of Delicious! magazine, the top foodie publication in New York City. She settles in well, making friends and enjoying the work, until the magazine is suddenly shut down by its owners. Though everyone else is now out of work, Billie is asked to stay on for a time to fulfill a corporate legal obligation, taking calls from disgruntled customers who are unhappy with the way the magazine's "guaranteed" recipes turned out. 

Billie and Sammy, the magazine's travel writer who has just returned to find the office all but empty, conspire to enter the locked upstairs library that has always been firmly off limits to employees. Inside, hidden behind shelves, they find the door to a secret room. In this room are decades of letters from Delicious! readers, among them some from Lulu, a young girl who corresponded with chef James Beard throughout WWII. Fascinated by Lulu's story, Billie and Sammy set out to track her down and find out what happened to her when the letters stopped.

The plot had potential but it went in too many different directions and tried to make all of them equally fascinating. In the end it's hard to say which is the main storyline. 

Some of the situations seemed implausible, like Billie having a fear of cooking because of an unnamed (until much further along) trauma concerning her sister. Even when it becomes clear what happened, the fear of cooking/kitchens doesn't make sense. And then there's the very complicated system used for hiding the letters that seems unlikely and without any real purpose. Add to those a lady who keeps calling the office to complain about the recipes; she's entertaining until she does a startling about turn, behaving like a different person entirely.

Some of the characters felt like stereotypes: the tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside Deli owner who takes Billie under his wing, the irritating man she at first doesn't like then ends up falling for, and Billie herself, quirky, charming and adored by everyone she meets.

A few pages in I thought it might be a fun, light read, instead it felt contrived and over the top. Maybe there were too many characters and too many stories being told to do any of them real justice. 

On a more positive note, I'm reading Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year now and finding it well written and very entertaining. Her own story, about the year Gourmet Magazine shut down (she'd been the editor for 10 years), is much more satisfying reading than I found the novel to be.  

spill simmer falter wither

spill simmer falter wither by Sara Baume

Written in four sections, spill takes place in spring, simmer in summer, falter in fall, and wither in winter.
The title foreshadows the deterioration to come.

Ray, 57, lives alone in his father's house after his father's death, until he adopts a dog who is, like Ray, damaged and unwanted. The dog, who has only one eye after a violent run-in with another animal, becomes Ray's best, his only, friend, but when it attacks and harms another dog on the beach near the house, Ray packs up the car and they hit the road, running from any possible legal repercussions. Living out of the car for months to avoid being found by anyone looking, they survive on canned spaghetti and the occasional bottle of whiskey, Ray telling "One Eye" his life story as they drive by day and and sleep in the parked car at night. 

This is a book that doesn't use action to tell the story, but instead peels back the layers of a character to let the reader understand who he is and why he does what he does. The prose is absolutely beautiful, the tone pensive, and the ending sad but not unexpected. 

I love these lines: "Sometimes I see the sadness in you, the same sadness that's in me. It's in the way you sigh and stare and hang your head. It's in the way you never wholly let your guard down and take the world I've given you for granted. My sadness isn't a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop."

As I closed the book I thought I knew how I felt about it. I would have said I liked it, that it was ok. But the longer I think about it, the more I see how deeply it affected me, and I've gone from thinking it moderately good to loving it for its language and honesty, and now wanting to read it again. There's something in it, an authenticity in the tension it presents between the beauty and the ugliness of life, something so heartrendingly real that I want to experience it again. 

This one is special. It's not light reading by any means, but is full of meaning and pathos and insight into a life worthy of our time and consideration.    

A World Elsewhere

 A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston said he was inspired to write this story after visiting the Biltmore estate in North Carolina. The Vanderbuilt family's names are here changed from George, Edith, and Cornelia, to Pagett, Gertrude and Godwin Vanderluyden, and their home to Vanderland. The story, and all the words and actions of the characters are fiction.

Landish Druken met Pagett Vanderluyden, called Van, as a student at Princeton. They became good friends but when they left university, after Van set Landish up and got him expelled, they went their separate ways. Van, who would inherit a fortune, went to North Carolina to build the house he claimed would be the most magnificent in the country. Landish, who rejected his own inheritance because of differences with his father, went back to Newfoundland to live in an attic room in poverty. 

Landish adopts a baby boy because he holds his own father responsible for the death of the child's father. Back in the attic room he tends the child, spending his days writing and each night burning what he wrote. When he becomes desperate to provide for the boy, he writes to Van asking for help. Eventually they join him in North Carolina at Vanderland, where Landish is to tutor Van's daughter. That sounds like a good opportunity, but both Van and Landish are deeply troubled characters and it turns out to be a precarious situation for everybody.    

At this point I found the story dragged a bit and I began to wonder what the point was, but his writing is so good I didn't think seriously about not finishing,  and in the end I was glad kept going.  

The characters in this book and others of Johnston's that I've read are unlike any I meet anywhere else, and yet they are always relatable on some level. They're just peculiar enough that you are compelled to try to understand them, even when you're furious with them. You want so much for them to succeed, to live better, to stop self-destructing. There are layers and layers to each of them, and to the plot - he really is a brilliant writer. I did like this one, but maybe not quite so much as the others. 

I got the opportunity to visit the Biltmore Estate a few years ago and it is nothing short of breathtaking. It's a working estate with a tourist village that's fun to explore, but the jewel of the estate is the house, as seen in this picture I took while there. Hard to believe it was home to a family of only three, but at least one of those floors was probably used to house the large staff required to keep it running.

We stayed at the nearby Biltmore Inn, also a beautiful place. This was our lovely room:

And here's the link to their website where you can take a virtual tour:

How To Stop Time

 How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard has a rare condition called anageria, causing him to age at an extremely slow rate. He looks 40 but has actually lived over 400 years, which may not be as great as it sounds. If he stays very long in one place people become suspicious and question why he's not aging, and that's usually followed by all sorts of rumors and wild accusations. As a boy, his mother is accused of witchcraft; as a young man, he is forced to leave his wife and daughter behind for their protection. It's a dangerous life.

In time he finds others like himself and is recruited to The Albatross Society, an organization formed for the protection of people like Tom. The man who runs it arranges for the members to be relocated every 8 years with complete new identities in exchange for which they do jobs for the Society. Tom accepts a mission that leads him to change his thinking about what life is for and how it should be lived. 

In his current situation as a teacher, he meets, and is attracted to, a woman who says she recognizes him from a very old painting. Tom knows the first rule of The Albatross Society is "don't get involved in relationships", but he's lonely and he likes her. Eventually he has to tell her the truth about his age...I'll let you imagine how that conversation goes.        

It's an interesting story - if a bit heavy on angst - that asks some serious questions. What is life for? Does it matter how you live? If you had unlimited time, what would you do differently? Is more time necessarily better?   

I liked this one, and these lines in particular:

"...the only reason such music exists is because it is a language that couldn't be communicated in any other way..."

"The main lesson of history is: humans don't learn from history."

" only need to switch on the news to see the dreadful repetitions, the terrible unlearned lessons, the twenty-first century slowly becoming a crude cover version of the twentieth."

" I understand that the way you stop time is by stopping being ruled by it. I am no longer drowning in my past, or fearful of my future."
"To teach feels like you are a guardian of time itself, protecting the future happiness of the world via the minds that are yet to shape it."