Villette by Charlotte Bronte

The heroine of this story is Lucy Snowe, not a woman named Villette as you might think. Villette is instead the name of the fictional city in France where most of the story takes place.

It begins with Lucy as a child staying with friends in England. These friends will re-appear further on in the story.  Some years later in Lucy's life an unnamed misfortune has come to her family and left her alone to make her way in the world. She works briefly as companion to an aging woman who dies suddenly leaving her alone once again. Learning of a need for English teachers in France, she travels there and through a series of rather dramatic circumstances is hired on at the girls school run by a Madam Beck.

Her life lacks romance and excitement but Lucy is resigned to her lot and reasonably content: "I see a huge mass of my fellow creatures in no better circumstances. I see that a great many men, and more women, hold their span of life on conditions of denial and privation. I see no reason why I should be of the few favoured. I believe in  some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lots; I believe that this life is not all, neither the beginning nor the end. I believe while I tremble. I trust while I weep." Coincidence brings the old friends previously mentioned back into her life and she develops feelings for the son of the family, feelings he does not share. A stormy relationship with another professor at the school develops and.....that's all I'll reveal.

The writing is satisfying and charming, as Charlotte Bronte's writing always is, with well worded sentences and lovely grammar. It was very pleasant to read, if a bit overly dramatic at times. I enjoyed the character development and the lyrical descriptions: "At dinner that day, Genevra and Paulina each looked in her own way, very beautiful; the former perhaps, boasted the advantage in material charms but the latter shone pre-eminent for attractions more subtle and beautiful: for light and eloquence of eye, for grace of mien, for winning variety of expression."

It is character driven rather than plot driven but it does not lack a good story. I've probably given the impression it's all romance so I must say there's more to it than that. Themes include lifestyle/perspective differences between rich and poor, the struggles a woman on her own faces as she makes her way through life in the nineteenth century, and duty vs. desire. 

There are only a couple of things I don't like about the book. One is the ending, which is basically left up to the reader with a few less-than-subtle hints in a particular direction. The other thing is the title. The city doesn't play a large enough role in the story to warrant the title; it's about Lucy, not about Villette. Other than that,I loved it!

"The Mysterious Key and What It Opened"

The Mysterious Key And What It Opened by Louisa May Alcott

The story begins with the mysterious death of Sir Richard Trevlyn. All the reader knows is that Richard's wife, Alice, who is pregnant with their first child, listens through a keyhole in the library door to a conversation Richard has with a visitor. What she hears horrifies her, she faints, and a servant, Hester, finds her and helps her to bed. Alice insists Richard not be disturbed, but Hester is worried and goes to the library anyway to tell him his wife is ill. She finds him slumped over his desk, dead.

 Twelve years later the child, Lillian, meets a stranger on the grounds, a sixteen year old boy named Paul who applies for work on the estate. He does his job well, advancing in position and earning the affection of family and servants alike. Some of the servants suspect he may be more than a mere gardener or groom, but they like him and when he leaves without a word to anyone they are confused and disappointed.

The mysteries of why Richard died, who Paul is and how those things are related are drawn out all the way to the last chapters when all is revealed. The authour does a fine job of building interest and holding the reader's attention. It's a little predictable, but in this book I really didn't mind.

I love Alcott's writing. It's....I don't know.....nice. That may not be a great tribute but it's the word that always come to mind when I think about her books. This one is no match for Little Women but it is a pleasant way to pass a few hours. I had actually never heard of this book till I found it free for the ereader, but I'm glad I stumbled across it and I do recommend it.

"Holy Cow - An Indian Adventure"

Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald

Sarah MacDonald moved to India with her boyfriend when he was posted to New Delhi as a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Company. She had backpacked through India when she was younger and didn't like it at all so she wasn't looking forward to living there. After reading this I would hesitate even to visit; ironically, she ended up loving it.

This book is a fascinating look at the various people groups and faith systems of India. Complicated doesn't begin to describe it, and yet there's a simultaneous simplicity in their lives that is appealing in spite of everything. And by "everything" I mean the dirt, the oppressive heat and stench, the unending crowds of people and lack of solitude, the overwhelming confusion of gods and religions and the frustrating, backward attitudes toward women. I learned a lot about India...India the good and India the bad.

As much as the book reveals about the country, what it's really about is Sarah MacDonald's personal search for something to believe in. She experimented with Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam and others, spent time at their meetings and retreats and was introduced to "gods" living and dead; there are millions of different gods worshiped within these various religions. MacDonald says she gained something from each experience but she didn't come to fully accept any religion as her own.

I personally found this aspect of her story sad for a couple of reasons. For one thing I can't imagine the burden of having hundreds and thousands of gods to appease in my daily living. It seems hopeless to me and what kind of religion is it that destroys hope? The other thing is that she sort of "tried on" all these religions to see what fit her best then discarded them as quickly as she went into them. I guess I don't understand the point of shopping for a religion you like. For me it's about looking for truth because any religion that isn't based on truth would just be meaningless ritual. She concludes there is some truth in all of them but she never actually finds "the" truth of the one God she can believe in and follow. I hope one day she will.

Though I found the spiritual aspect of it confusing, I do recommend "Holy Cow" as an entertaining look at life in India. I'm glad I read it. 

"Island Lighthouse Inn"

Island Lighthouse Inn by Jeffrey Burke

After a cold hard winter this book felt like the first breath of spring. Really, can there be anything better than Island life with the bite of salt in the air and fresh breezes off the water? If I can't actually be there, reading about it is the next best thing.

Jeff and Judi Burke left their home in California looking for a simpler lifestyle and ended up buying an old lighthouse on a tiny island off the coast of Maine. Remote Isle au Haut didn't even have electricity but they managed to create a comfortable inn there, a spot where visitors could escape from the rat race and slow down for a time.

This book is a collection of stories about the challenges they faced getting the inn ready to open, about the sometimes quirky guests who have spent time there and about how their new life as innkeepers and island dwellers has changed them. Each chapter ends with a recipe from the Inn's menu: Downeast Blueberry Muffins, Honey Wheat Bread, Garden Tomato Soup, Judi's Apple Pie and others. Every one of them sounds worth trying.

Burke's writing was quite enjoyable to read. Some of his stories are funny, some sad, some dramatic and he has a natural way of telling them that feels realistic and relatable. He has a bit of a lyrical bent too and that adds beauty to passages like this one where he talks about gathering with his family to spread the ashes of his recently deceased mother and he closes the story with this line: "I brushed my hands together: the last clinging particles were swept away by the breeze, to the skies, to the seas, to the sands of time."  Later, referring to the over 700 creaky old windows in the lighthouse and outbuildings, he talks about the "elemental symphony" they create: "Their voices carry through the house like a grapevine of old friends sharing secrets, stories about the keepers' families who lived here through the years, recalling the sounds of love, of rage, of children growing up and old people dying. I leave them free to gossip; to silence them with oil would be an affront to their wisdom and dignity."

All in all an entertaining read full of great stories and fresh air. I definitely recommend it.

"Flight To Heaven"

Flight To Heaven by Captain Dale Black

Captain Black is a retired pilot who was the only survivor of an "unsurvivable" plane crash when he was a young man. He sustained horrific injuries that were expected to cripple him for life, but he was determined to fly again. He had the faith to ask for healing and believe he would receive it, faith that came from an incredible thing he experienced after the accident.

While he was in a coma, Dale Black went to Heaven. What he saw, heard and felt there changed his life. He talks about angels, music and the "truth that prevails and has supremacy in heaven." He saw light and colours as he'd never seen them before and flowers "that were beautiful to behold. Each petal and leaf illuminated with that glorious light...". He struggled to find words to describe the beauty: "If millions of jewels had been gathered into one place and the brightest sunlight shone through them it wouldn't begin to describe the colors I saw."

At the center of it all was God: "...a great phosphorescent display of light that narrowed to a focal point that was brighter than the sun, a light that didn't make me squint to look at it but was palpable" and had "substance to it, weight and thickness, like nothing I had ever seen before or since." His descriptions are breathtaking , even given our human limitations in talking about and understanding heavenly things.

The title being what it is, I was expecting more of the book to be about his experience in heaven, but most of it is about his recovery and healing as he worked his way back to being a pilot and living a full, productive life. It is a fascinating story but I was drawn back again and again to the 12 or so pages he filled with descriptions of heaven. I can't get enough of it.

I was so engrossed in what I was reading that I forgot it was a library copy and started underlining passages with reckless abandon. Now I'm off to the library to confess and offer to purchase a replacement copy. I really have to stop doing this.