Reading Behind Bars & The Innocent Wayfaring

 Reading Behind Bars by Jill Grunenwald

To begin on a positive note, I learned something about how a prison library works and found that interesting. But from the title, I hoped I'd be reading how specific books impacted individuals, what insights they gained and how it helped them. Instead, the focus was on the author's day-to-day life while she worked at the prison. In the epilogue she talks about the impact the individual inmates had on her, but I don't find the book reflects that. I found her flippant, her tone almost mocking at times. When she tells us how she put certain prisoners in their place, almost gloating, she doesn't cast herself in a favourable light.

Though the blurb on the cover says it's "a memoir of literature, law, and life as a prison librarian", only a few book titles were mentioned and that was as far as the "Literature" part of it went. The writing wasn't great; it seemed to be padded for length or impact or something else that didn't end up being effective. It was short on editing, even proof-reading. Some gratuitous swearing (by the narrator, not the inmates) felt forced and out of place and overall I found it shallow when there was real potential for deeper stories of human connection. 

I didn't like the book or, unfortunately, the narrator.

The Innocent Wayfaring by Marchette Chute

A young girl from a wealthy family runs away from a convent where she's been sent to learn the homey skills needed to make her a good wife. She meets up with a young man who has rejected the life laid out for him as a tradesman for the freedom of life as a poet. They travel and meet with a few adventures together until at last they return to the girl's home where they announce their intention to marry. 

I can't say exactly why I'm not enthusiastic about this story but it's lacking something. The fourteenth century setting is believable, but the plot and characters feel unrealistic and unrelatable. It's pleasant as a fairy tale, and maybe that's what the author intended it to be. Still, even a fairy tale has a point to make, something you can take away from it, but I didn't find that offered here.       


The Christmas Hirelings & The House by the Sea

 The Christmas Hirelings by M. E. Braddon


A wealthy father disowned his daughter years ago when she married a man of whom he disapproved. He's had no contact with her for years, even though she is now widowed and raising her children alone. As Christmas comes around, a mutual friend of father and daughter contrives to acquaint the man with his grandchildren without his knowing their true identity. He successfully installs them in the man's house for a few days and I'm sure you can imagine the rest. It is predictable, but lovely nevertheless. It reminded me 
of Little Lord Fauntleroy in style and tone, a sweet story perfect for Christmas for adults and younger readers alike. 

The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas

Edie's mother-in-law, Anna, dies and wills her Italian villa to Edie and Tom, Anna's son, from whom Edie's been separated for ten years. Their marriage didn't survive the agonizing loss of their young son, Daniel, for whose death Edie blames Anna. They want only to get the matter settled and the house sold so they can be rid of each other again, but when they arrive in Italy things get complicated. There's a friend in need of protection from an abusive husband, a now elderly crime-syndicate boss living nearby, and someone who will stop at nothing to get them to leave. It's both a mystery and a family story of regret,  forgiveness, and reconciliation. I enjoyed listening to the audio book narrated by the articulate and expressive Emma Powell, whose charming British accent made it that much better.   

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

How is it that I'm only now finding this book, 30 years after it was published? I've seen countless movies about the Viet Nam war, read books and stories, and watched it's ugly scenes unfold before my eyes on tv as they were happening, but somehow I missed this book, surely the best of them all.

The structure is hard to describe because it's unlike anything I've read before. It's fiction, but not a novel in the usual sense of the word, nor short stories as we know them. It's more a series of vignettes that tell a story, less as a progression of events than an array of sights, sounds, smells and emotions that come at you from everywhere.

Beyond simply telling us what happened, he takes us into the minds of the characters to share their thoughts and feelings while things are happening. He makes the experience so vivid, so immediate, that it settles into your memory as though you had actually been through it yourself, yet it's as beautiful as it is shattering. O'Brien bares the souls of his characters, and as we look into them, we find something of ourselves. It's exhilarating and terrifying and powerfully intimate. 

In and around all the war stories, he asks us to consider what qualifies as a true war story. Does adherence to the facts make it true or is conveying the right sensations the important thing? He skillfully blurs the lines between truth and fiction, leaving you to decide for yourself which stories are factual and whether or not it even matters. 

This is an amazing book, one that should be required reading for every adult on the planet.

12 Rules for Life, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Glass Shatters

 12 Rules for Life

This book is packed full of information, and so, clearly, is Mr. Peterson. I picture his brain so stuffed full of knowledge and insight and ideas that it just sort of explodes out onto the pages of books. I'm sure there's a little more to it than that - I'm just saying the guy's a genius...and I have brain-envy. I wish I could think, and write, with such clarity. 

The book is wordy, but every word matters. It's well-written, readable, and makes more sense than is common presently. Anyone wanting to bring some order to their chaotic life will find a place to start here. Each rule is stated simply, then expanded upon with stories and indisputable logic that cement the rule into our psyches. I should have read this book in my younger years, but that would have been before toddler Peterson could read or write. On the other hand I'm so impressed I'd quite easily believe he was born reading, writing and speaking forth wisdom.

Read this book. 


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I liked this, but less than I had expected to after reading reviews, 

Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girl's school, a teacher with vastly different teaching methods than her employer considers appropriate. Each year she focuses in on a few select girls who become known as "The Brodie Set", girls who stay close to her even after they progress pass her grade level. Her remaining students she considers a little less worth her time and attention. 

Most of the other staff frown upon Miss Brodie and her teaching style because her students often move on to them with a considerable lack of academic knowledge. That they come with a broader knowledge of life, and specifically romance, fails to impress them. They don't like Miss Brodie much, and to tell the truth, neither did I.  

I think I'd get more out of this one if we discussed it in book club where the others could point out all the great things I missed. I found it only somewhat interesting and rather sad, but I am sure there's more to be gleaned from it than I've gotten. 


Glass Shatters by Michelle Myers

A man wakes up in a house he doesn't recognize, not knowing who he is, how he came to be there or why his head is bandaged. He stumbles out into the street and is recognized by a little girl who calls him Charles and tells him he's been gone for months. 

Memories - at first vague - of a wife and daughter who disappeared torment him until finding them becomes his obsession. When he's told he's a scientist who works at a genetics lab, other memories stir but he can't quite grasp any of them. Why isn't anything making sense? What is real and what isn't? Who is he?

The writing is quite good, the plot unusual and thought-provoking. It's a story of science being pushed to its ethical limits, which amounts to catnip for me.



The Trial / The Queen's Secret

 The Trial by Franz Kafka

I've never been so glad to finish a book. I don't know how to rate it in a how-much-did-you-like-it sense like GR's 5 star scale. I didn't like it at all, but I do appreciate what it's saying. I'm glad I read it, though it was anything but enjoyable.  

Joseph K. is told there is a court case against him but he is not told what the charges are, what law he has broken. Every effort to find out is futile. He talks to a few people who give him long-winded advice on the best course of action to follow, then tell him their advice will be of no help. They explain that they are merely lower officials of the court and they have no access to higher courts. K will also be denied access to the courts that judge his case and decide his fate. He has no rights. The Courts system is impenetrable, the law infallible.  

Questions go unanswered, but by the time I got to the end I didn't care. I didn't want the answers, I just wanted to get out of the suffocating atmosphere of pretense and contradictions, the madness that is the bureaucracy of a totalitarian government. K's hopes, and the reader's, in the beginning are soon worn down by relentless and senseless explanations that show no path forward or backward. It becomes horrifyingly apparent that there is no way out, there will be no way out, and yet the frail hope that common sense must surely prevail, and help come, survives until the last breath of life itself is given up. Painful to read, unnerving to contemplate.


The Queen's Secret by Karen Harper

Poor writing, repetitive, and sensationalized, with characters that would more accurately be described as caricatures. The dialogue feels contrived, almost theatrical. I wanted to like, or at least respect, the main character but she made herself preposterous with her bragging and repeatedly turning our attention back to her personal concerns from lesser matters like war and human suffering. The Queen, and she never lets you forget she is the Queen, has not just one but several secrets, and she never lets you forget those either. In every chapter she reminds us all about them and wonders endlessly if the King or the Prime Minister or somebody, anybody knows. It was awful. 

The Sense of an Ending, The Iliad, Slaughterhouse-Five

 The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I read it too quickly the first time, so I went back and began again, hoping to find answers to lingering questions. There's much to think about here.

The narrator is Tony Webster. The story he's telling is his own history: the friends he had at school, his romance with a girl named Veronica, and later his marriage to Margaret and the birth of their daughter, Lucy.
Fast forward a few decades and Tony receives notice from a legal firm that Veronica's mother has left him an old friend's diary in her will. Tony has no idea how she came to be in possession of  the diary or why she left it to him. Getting answers becomes complicated when he learns that Veronica now has the diary and is not inclined to part with it. As he searches for answers he begins to realize that his memories of the past, the tidy picture of it he has created for himself, may not be completely accurate. It's possible his actions then affected other lives in ways he'd rather not face today.

This psychological drama is tightly written with flawed, messed-up, utterly human characters. I wanted to shake Veronica and yell at Tony, but mostly I just wanted them all to be ok. They would not be. I have to keep reminding myself this is fiction; it's all so vivid that surely it must be somebody's actual story. Do read this one. It's too good to miss.   


The Iliad by Homer

blood and gore,
long Greek names,
women as prizes
in war games, 
fighting and killing, 
crying and dying,
and a lot of useless gods.

Not a fan.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I read this because I thought I should. I left it almost to the end of my Guilt List books because I was dreading it a little bit - how could you not dread a book with such a title - but in the end I got through it and I'm glad to have read it. It isn't a book I can say I liked because the subject matter is horrible, but I can say I appreciated it - the writing and the message. It's about the inevitability of war, the unspeakable damage it does physically and psychologically, and it's ultimate uselessness. Not light reading, but the darkness is alleviated somewhat by the lead character, Billy Pilgrim's, seeming ability to time travel, and his kidnapping by aliens for a trip to the planet of Tralfamadore. It's weird, but it's good.  

Anxious People and Bird by Bird

 Anxious People by Fredrik Backman


The first few chapters seemed so silly I almost gave it up. I tried a few more (the chapters are very short, 74 in all) until one of the characters said something that finally made sense to me and convinced me to keep going. 

A group of people at an apartment viewing are surprised to find themselves being held hostage by a bank robber who never did manage to rob a bank. The hostages are a quirky group, competitive at first and determined to nab this great apartment by any means, fair or not, but then gradually, cautiously, they lower their defenses and get to know each other and their captor. 

The police officers on the case are a father and son who have different ways of doing things. One is by-the-book and easily frustrated, the other, with more experience, has learned that compassion offers a better solution in some cases than strict adherence to the rules. 

I liked the book once I had some understanding of what was happening. The early part was like putting together a puzzle without the picture, but in the end I enjoyed the story and found characters I liked and even wished I could spend more time with. 

The wrap-up reminded me of the last Backman book I read, Beartown. In both he shows us in little vignettes how life turns out for each of the characters, wrapping each short account up with a meaningful/dramatic sentence or two. I appreciated being told what happened in each character's life - I wanted to know that - but the repetitious structure became tiresome in both books.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott shares her writing process in hopes of helping others get started, or get back to it, or get unstuck from whatever point you're at. She shares some of what she teaches in her writing workshops, lessons she's learned in her own years of experience trying to get words on paper. There are chapters on plot, dialogue, characters, writer's block, finding your voice, and broccoli.....hmm. It's full of helpful information and encouragement, real stuff that has pushed me to finish some things abandoned long ago. She has a sense of humour and the confidence to use it well, making this a lot of fun to read. A good book to keep nearby for the writing help and for a laugh when I need one. 

An Unnecessary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Aaliya is a 72 year old woman living alone in a Beiruit apartment. From childhood she has felt somehow different from others, a difference she sometimes carries with a small amount of pride but  which has always left her with the awkward feeling of never belonging anywhere. She has spent most of her life translating works of literature into Arabic, translations that no one will ever read because as she finishes them, she boxes them up and stores them in her spare room She's been doing this for 50 years.

Aaliya is the narrator, so we have the privilege - and it is a privilege - of being inside her head throughout the book. Through her thoughts and memories we experience her childhood, her family, her awful marriage, and her despair. Her love of literature fills every chapter with enough book references and quotes to keep you adding titles to your tbr for days.

She is, has always been, lonely, yet tends to keep apart from other people. She is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and she doesn't like her mother, brothers, neighbours, or herself. She is one of the most honest characters I've ever read, or maybe it's just that I recognize bits of my flawed self in her, those bits you just don't talk about...to anyone. Alan Bennett has said : “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”. When I was reading this book I felt the author was reaching out her hand and taking mine. You can't ask more from a novel than that.

This opening line: "You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration." begins a novel that doesn't rely on plot, but on her memories, her present situation, and her ideas and philosophies, formed mostly from the literature to which she devoted her life. I am taken with the way this author expresses herself, how neatly her sentences convey her thoughts, and the clarity and impact of her imagery. Here are a few other lines/phrases that caught my attention:

"Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: Insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."

There is no one more conformist than one who flaunts his individuality.

I know. You think you love art because you have a sensitive soul. Isn’t a sensitive soul simply a means of transforming a deficiency into a proud disdain?

…the impatience of the entitled...” This one stopped me in my tracks.

…with an Egyptian pyramid’s worth of effort....” I love this. 

I don't recall where I heard about this book, but I feel very lucky to have found it; it's one of the best I've read this year.

Akin, Oryus

 Akin by Emma Donoghue


Noah Selvaggio is a 79 year old getting ready for a trip to Nice, his early childhood home. He is going only because his sister passed away and left him money that she insisted he must use for fun. He hasn't been back since he was sent to America at the age of 4, but he has an interest in searching out information about his grandfather, a famous photographer, and his mother, who stayed in France when she sent him away.

Just before he leaves, he receives a call from a social worker tracking down relatives of an 11 year old boy, Michael, whose father, Noah's nephew, is dead and whose mother is going to prison for drug possession. If Noah doesn't help, Michael will go into the foster care system. Noah can't bring himself to abandon his nephew's son, and so reluctantly decides to take the angry-at-everybody, foul-mouthed but otherwise uncommunicative Michael to France with him. Once there, Noah looks both for answers about his family and a way to connect with Michael, discovering things about his family's past and present that change the way he sees his life. 

A good story and well written. I very much enjoyed this one. 

Oryus by Craig Gordon

The first in a fantasy series with Biblical overtones and echoes of The Lord of the Rings, with a hooded, grey-haired figure who offers words of wisdom and/or impending doom, an assortment of beings from different lands, and an intense young man of noble character destined for a greatness he does not seek.
The plot is decent, but there is only the one story line. I think it must have been written for younger readers who I'm sure would enjoy the adventure more than I did. I found it lacking in depth, with no clear theme and very little character development.

And it was disappointing to find the end of the story set up to lead into a sequel. The last chapter did end on a reasonable note but then there's an epilogue warning of that impending doom mentioned earlier. It would be nice to know how it ends without having to continue a series that doesn't appeal to me. Shouldn't it warn you on the cover somewhere that you're starting a series?
   

East of Eden, Under the Overpass

East of Eden by John Steinbeck


Expecting this to be a bit of a slog, I opted for the audio book. Reviews I'd looked at swung wildly between wonderful and horrible, so, seeing it was quite lengthy, I chose to take the easier road. Now I wish I'd read a hard copy. It gave me a lot to think about; I'd stop listening to consider what they'd just said and what it meant to me, and ten minutes would slip away before I'd remember to get back to it. It's the kind of book that compels you to keep a pen in your hand for underlining meaningful passages, and then, when you come to the end, you close the cover and sit quietly, grateful for the experience.   

It begins with two brothers Charles and Adam Trask, sons of Cyrus Trask. Charles loves his father, while Adam merely respects him, and Charles is painfully aware that of his two sons, Cyrus loves Adam more. Adam is coerced by his father to join the army, while Charles goes on to be a prosperous farmer. In time Adam marries Cathy, the worst of all possible choices for a wife, and they have twins. Cathy doesn't want anything to do with them and Adam sinks into a depression, not caring for his sons or even naming them. Fortunately he has Lee, his cook, a wonderful character, to tend them until a neighbour, Samuel, another great character, comes to remind Adam rather forcefully that he has two sons to raise. The boys get named, grow up, and eventually meet their mother, a trauma impacting them in radically different ways. 

Good and evil, destiny and free will, these are the main themes. The twins, like all of us, have both good and evil tendencies, and with one tending more heavily to the wrong side of the scale, the book asks if darkness is his destiny or if he can choose who he will be in the world.

East of Eden is a powerful story, insightful and utterly absorbing. A great read.


Under The Overpass by Mike Yankoski

These are the eye-opening experiences of two young men who stepped away from university for a few months to live with the homeless on the streets of several major US cities. They slept in shelters when beds were available but spent most nights outside in parks or in any reasonably safe spot they could find. Money for food and bus tickets to the next city was earned panhandling - singing and playing guitar. Their experience, though harrowing, was not truly the same as that of other people on the streets because they always had a safety net. They knew they could walk away from it at any time, and even if they did stick it out for the planned time period, eventually they'd be going back to their normal lives, with warm beds, clean clothes and plentiful food. Still, what they saw and heard while they were out there changed them and gave them stories to tell that are worth the reading.  

Harry's Trees, Moonlight Over Paris & Kiss My Asterisk

 Harry's Trees by Jon Cohen

This is the story of three people who have suffered great loss in their lives and who, in each other, find their way through grief to happiness again. Harry's two favourite things in life are his wife, Beth, and trees. When he loses Beth in a bizarre accident, he heads for a section of forest he's familiar with through his work with the forestry service, and is found there, injured, by the recently widowed Amanda and her daughter, Oriana. Oriana thinks Harry has been sent into their lives by her father, whose spirit she believes to be now embodied in a red-tailed hawk that keeps showing up at crucial times. She convinces her mother to let Harry stay in Oriana's tree house for a couple of weeks, and when a legal settlement brings Harry a significant amount of money that he doesn't want, they hatch a furtive plot to be rid of it. Things get complicated when Harry's brother, Wolf, who lives up to his name and fiercely believes he's entitled to the money, comes after him. Add to that a smarmy real estate agent who wants to take advantage of Amanda's financial woes to foreclose on her house and you have the makings of quite a story, with a little adventure, a bit of fairy tale magic, and, of course, a romance. It's sweet, but not sappy. The characters, most of them, feel real and so does their grief, though Harry's brother and the real estate agent are a bit cartoonish. It's an appealing story and worth the read.

Moonlight Over Paris by Jennifer Robson

This was pretty good. The title seems trite and hasn't much to do with the story, other than it is set in Paris, but the characters are interesting and the plot, though the end was predictable, kept me wondering what was coming next. There's something about this story that resonated with me. There’s no reason why it should: I’ve never been to Paris and certainly never lived the lifestyles described here. Maybe it was the reader's performance; she made every character likable, not that I want every character in a book to be likable, but again, there's just something about this one. I think the word I’m looking for is lovely; it was a lovely story. With a pleasant setting, an engaging plot, and charming characters, it offered exactly the escape from reality I was looking for. 

Kiss My Asterisk, a Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar  by Jenny Baranick

If you're looking for a quick refresher on punctuation and grammar, but don't want a dry text book full of obscure rules and their exceptions, you will like this. It covers the basics: when to use commas and semi-colons, when to spell out numbers or use numerals, when to capitalize and when not to capitalize, etc. It's called a Feisty Guide because it's full of attitude and innuendo, nothing at all like your prim and proper high school English teacher. It's fun, if a little over the top with the sex talk - not dirty, but not subtle either: high school information, junior high humour.   

Housekeeping

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Another stellar novel from this excellent author. This was in fact her first novel; it is only "another" to me as I'm coming to it after several others.                                  

Lucille and her sister Ruthie get dropped off at their grandmother's house, then watch as their mother drives away, never to be seen again. Five years later they are put into the care of two prim, elderly ladies, for whom the responsibility soon proves to be too much, leading to their mother's younger sister, Sylvie, coming to "keep house" for them. Sylvie, long a drifter, doesn't easily adapt to staying in one place or even living within walls or under a roof, choosing some nights to sleep in the car or outside in the grass. She feeds them, barely, but is careless about the house, leaving it to deteriorate around them. In time Lucille rejects this lifestyle, wanting normalcy and security, but Ruthie begins to understand Sylvie and her need to be untethered. When local authorities question whether Ruthie is being properly cared for, Sylvie makes an effort, cleaning up the house and answering all their questions, but it is of no use. They are coming to take Ruthie away...   

Robinson writes some of the most poetic prose I've ever read. She tells of life's hard things with words that infuse light and air into them, making them feel less tragic. I've never read any other author who can do this. The story itself is profoundly moving, but the stunning way she uses language to tell it makes it something more, something that soars above story-telling, yet also plunges you deep into the world she's creating. It's exhilarating, and comforting at the same time. Read it slowly, so you can take in every rich sentence. 

I will remember this book for its beautiful sadness, a sadness not disheartening but giving a kind of comfort and not without hope. This is my fourth of Marilynne Robinson's books, two of which, and now three, have made it to my all time favourites list. I can honestly say of these books: they make my life better.   

If you still aren't convinced, here are a few quotes to tempt you:

“She conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting.”

“Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.”

“Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.”
    

The Bookworm and The Case of the Missing Marquess

 The Bookworm by Mitch Silver


Lara Klimpt, ex-chess player, now Professor of Geo-Politics, is quietly given six Second World War dictaphone cylinders to translate into Russian. The voice on the recordings is that of Noel Coward, the well known actor and playwright who was also secretly a spy for the British Government. The information the cylinders contain reveals an ingenious plot to influence Hitler's thinking and will explain why Hitler chose not to invade England but, instead, turned his armies toward Russia. 

Lara's brother, Lev, works at an Alaskan oil field, where he is about to accidently uncover a massive political hoax being perpetrated by Russia and the US. Now he is being hunted by an assassin hired to remove him from the equation. 

The US President is heading for the G20 Summit in Moscow where he plans to make an announcement that will help get him elected for another term, but will leave America heavily dependent on fossil fuels for years into the future, fuels firmly in Russia's control. 

All of this comes together in a well-written, fast-paced tale of historical and modern day intrigue that makes for an entertaining read. This is not a genre I often choose, but I enjoyed it very much and hope to try another by this author.

The Case of the Missing Marquess, An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer

The younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes is worried about her mother who has disappeared. Tired of waiting for her brothers to find answers, she begins her own investigation, getting into all manner of trouble along the way. Part of a series written for a younger reader, I chose it because it was offered as a free audio book. It's not my cup of tea, but I expect it would be quite appealing to young girls and I would certainly recommend it for someone that age. For anyone who's interested, I think there's now a television series based on the novels. 


Never Let Me Go

 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This guy writes the most interesting books! I loved The Remains of The Day, and this one - lightyears away from that in setting, plot, and characters - is equally riveting. 

Set in a boarding school in rural England, students are being prepared for their future role in life. That role is the same for every one of them, for these are not ordinary children; they are human clones, and they are being raised for parts. They will become "donors", giving up their vital organs so that other people, "real" people,  can live better and longer lives.

The first part of the book tells of their school days. They live at the school, never leaving the grounds, their only contact with regular people being with their teachers, the delivery drivers who bring food and other necessities to the school, and Madame. Madame is the elegant, mysterious woman who comes to take away their best artwork for her ''gallery" but carefully avoids any contact with the children themselves. 

At 16 yrs old they are sent away from the school to one of several group-living situations where they work and mature until they begin their training to become "carers". For a time they will look after those who have begun their "donations" and are therefore starting to suffer declining health. They don't know how long they'll be used as carers; for some it's not long at all, for others, like Kathy, it can go on for years. But eventually every one of them will receive notice that it's time for their first donation and then they will be assigned a carer of their own. As donors, their bodies will become progressively weaker with each donation until their fourth and final donation kills them, or, in the words of the designers of the donation system, they "complete". At least donors hope that's what happens - the alternative is unthinkable. 

It sounds nightmarish, but the book is not gruesome to read. Told from the viewpoint of one student, Kathy, who seems to accept her destiny without question, it's quite matter-of-fact in it's presentation of the donor system and how it works. The feeling that something sinister is going on begins to rise on the very first page, but it stays in the background throughout. That's what makes it so quietly horrifying. Kathy recounts their childhoods, adolescence, friendships,  romantic involvements and their time as carers and then donors so pragmatically you could almost accept it as ordinary. Almost. But serious questions remain unanswered and it is the possible answers to those questions that keep the shivers running up and down your back. 

You'll question a society that could allow this to go on, and then wonder if ours would ever do the same. What is a life after all? What is a soul? What is it to be human? To be real? This brilliantly written story will not let you go, not while you're reading it and not long after you think you've finished it.  

Not Even Wrong and 142 Ostriches

 Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins

A few years ago I read Paul Collins' Sixpence House, which was about moving his family to "the town of books", Hay-on-Wye in Wales, where over 40 bookstores thrive in a village of only 2000 or so inhabitants. I enjoyed his writing and so was quite happy to receive this one from a friend and find it a sequel. It's about his autistic little boy and the fun, and fears, that are all part of raising him. As well as the personal stories, he takes us into the history of autism in a way that is never dry as some history telling is, bringing patients and doctors to vigorous life on the page. You'll 
find out who Dr. Asperger was and meet the doctor that Downs Syndrome is named after. And if you've never heard the story of "The Wild Boy", you're really missing something. Paul Collins addresses all these things with warmth and wit, and a conversational style that makes his books a pleasure to read. 

142 Ostriches by April Davila

A story about a young woman trying to run an ostrich farm when everything seems to be conspiring against her. Tallulah Jones was 13 when her grandmother removed her from the care of her alcoholic mother and brought her to the ostrich ranch. She learned the ways of the ranch, the ways of her grandmother, and she learned to love the birds. At 24, she is still living at the farm and helping out, but has plans to go to Montana to fulfill her dream of being a forest ranger. When her grandmother unexpectedly dies and leaves the ranch to her, Tallulah is determined to sell it all and stick with her plan. Then her uncle Steve shows up for the funeral, furious that his mother left everything to her granddaughter and nothing to him. Her mother, Laura, whom she hasn't seen in 11 years, shows up, too, demanding a share and threatening to contest the will. And then, worst of all, the birds stop laying eggs, a problem which, if not corrected soon, will destroy any chance of selling the ranch. 

The setting in the California desert contributes a lot to the story and is beautifully described, but what I really loved was getting to see how ostriches behave and what is involved in raising them. I'm drawn to stories that set me in times, places, or surroundings I'm not familiar with, and in which the author gives the setting a major role. I knew nothing about ostriches, not even that they were raised domestically, so it was fascinating to learn what makes these unusual birds tick. With good writing, strong characters, and an interesting plot, I have no hesitation recommending this one.   

E-mails being Discontinued

Hello readers. I need to let you know about an upcoming change to this site. If at some point you signed up to follow Ordinary Reader by email, I'm sorry to say the site is discontinuing that feature this month. As a result you will no longer be receiving e-mails notifying you of  my posts. I'm sorry for this inconvenience, and I do hope you'll continue to stop by. 

Thanks for following,  

Dianne  

Dept. of Speculation, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Atlas Shrugged, and Beartown

 Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Narrated by "The Wife", it's written in short paragraphs that felt disjointed and a sometimes a little...well...weird. She and 'The Husband" fall in love, get married, have "The Daughter", have marriage troubles, etc. Along with some astute observations about life, love and marriage. there's a lot of navel-gazing, reading less like a novel and more like a diary where the entries would mean more to the writer than the reader. 
I read it, and I'm not sorry I did, but I can't say I liked it.  



The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

This sequel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the story of Queenie, the woman Harold was walking across England to see. Both are good, but to me this is the better book. Queenie is writing down her story while she waits for Harold to arrive: how she met him, the friendship they developed over time, and the secret she's kept from him all these years. In a nursing home now, she knows she is failing with little time left and she very much wants to confess it all if Harold will only get there in time. 
While Queenie's history is good reading, what I found most meaningful was her present day experience in the nursing home. The characters are vivid and relatable and can make you want to laugh and cry on the same page. This part of the story pulses with life; it moved me, and is still with me two months after finishing the book. The reality of life at that stage is tragic and funny and sad and wonderful all at the same time. But in this finishing time there can also be acceptance, a certain peace that comes with knowing it is done, settled, and needs nothing more from you. This book celebrates that. And it's beautiful.  

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

On my Guilt List for over 10 years, I had read reviews and figured I was in for a real good read. What a letdown. I quit a couple of times and each time went back because I thought I must not be putting enough into it to get out of it what others did. I did finish it, more or less kicking and screaming, but I do not see the "greatness" in it. The philosophies of life being offered here are shallow and meaningless to me. There is no truth, beauty or anything else that makes it worth reading. Besides that, it's boring. Flat characters, dull dialogue. To say I didn't like puts it too mildly. I actively disliked it from a few pages in, and so, wouldn't recommend it to anybody. 
Now, I realize these words will seem like blasphemy to some, and those opinions are also valid. I've been called all manner of unpleasant things for disliking highly regarded books before so I do ask one thing. If you leave comments, tell me everything that's wonderful about the book and why you love it, just, please, be civil.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Seventeen year old Kevin Erdhal is the star player of a small town hockey team, and as such gets away with a lot.  But when Kevin is accused of rape, the team and the town begin to fall apart. Truths are hidden, sides are taken, and the town's dreams of winning the championship and getting a new arena look less and less like coming true. 

The rape victim is fifteen year old Maya, daughter of the team's General Manager. While the team and management are all behind Kevin - not so much because they believe he's innocent but because they're counting on him to win the final game just days away - Maya's dad, Peter, defends his daughter. Most of the town believe Kevin's denial because they're desperate; without a win, without a new arena, it's a town without much of a future. 

My only experience with this author was A Man Called Ove so I was expecting something a little lighter. What I got was a deeper, and in some ways darker story, a more serious examination of how loyalty, commitment, and strength of character endure or falter when life gets hard.   

The only thing I didn't like was the way it was structured in the last few pages. As he was bringing everything together and wrapping up loose ends, there would be a paragraph about one of the characters followed by a profound statement. Then on to the next character and profound statement. Then another, and another, till everybody was accounted for. It was great to read the stories of what happened to each one; it's the repetitious format and the attempt to be profound on every page that I found tedious. In spite of that, I loved the book. 
 
And I read it during the Stanley Cup playoffs which made it that much better. 

Very, very good. 


On an entirely different subject, can anyone tell me why the spacing is so difficult to get right on this site? You can see the extra space between the two top books compared to the rest. I spaced them all equally when writing the post but it adds unwanted space once it's posted. This happens a lot and makes the formatting look sloppy, so I thought I'd ask if anyone out there has a solution they could share. I'd be grateful for your thoughts.

The Reader on the 6.27, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Red Coat, and The Gown

 The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

A book about books, or maybe more about words, and the impact they have on people's lives. Guylain lives alone, has few friends, and every morning takes the same train to a menial job that he hates. He operates a huge machine, which he thinks of as "The Thing", that turns millions of unwanted books into a grey pulp “expelled in the form of great steaming turds” that is in turn used to create more books. He defies the machine by rescuing a few pages every day and reading them aloud on the train. People pay attention and before long two passengers ask him to come and read at their senior's home. He does, leading to experiences that are poignant and funny and wonderful to read. Another story line tells of a friend, the former operator of The Thing, who lost both legs while trying to dislodge stuck material that had brought the machine to a halt. That part is a bit grizzly. Then there's Julie, who loses a memory stick containing her diary on the train, which Guylain reads, prints out and begins to use for his daily readings on the way to work. He finds in her writing, for the first time in his life, someone who is like him, who understands loneliness, and he begins to fall in love. With the little identifying information he gets from her journal, knowing only that she is a washroom attendant (providing plenty of opportunity for more bowel talk) somewhere in a mall, he sets out to find her. 

I wasn't sure about this one in the beginning. Reviewers called it touching and beautiful but I couldn't find that in the first few chapters, which only described Guylain's rather grim existence and his hatred for "The Thing". But it soon became something deeper, something that is touching and beautiful, something that says there is colour to be found in even the most grey existence. It truly is a wonderful story, with just a few too many human waste references for my liking.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

This is a detective story...and/or a mystery...a fantasy...a weird and wonderful tale of intrigue and secret identities...I'm really not sure what to call it. It begins with two in-disguise men going to a secret meeting of anarchists, where one of them is chosen to be a leader of the group whose leaders are all named for days of the week. Thus he becomes The Man who was Thursday. 

In my book club some of the books included "A Nightmare" in the title and some did not, making it a very strange story for a few of our readers. As the story unfolds more false identities are discovered and hidden purposes uncovered. There comes a point at which it moves out of the realm of weird into the absolutely impossible, and those who hadn't known it was a nightmare from the beginning figured it out then. 

I highly recommend you look for reviews online to get a more coherent explanation. I can only say I thought it well written, weird, and I liked it. And that it needs studying. The surface level reading I gave it hardly does it justice.

The Red Coat by Dolley Carlson

The Red Coat, A Novel of Boston follows two families, one wealthy, one working class, in south Boston. The wealthy lady gives a red coat belonging to, but seldom worn by, her daughter, to her cleaning lady, who passes it on to one of her own daughters. There's not a great deal of plot, more a record of the lives of these two families. The red coat is the connecting factor but it never really lives up to the importance the title gives it. Yes it gets worn and passed on, but I didn't find it all that significant to the story. The city of Boston is almost a character in itself, so anyone from there will probably find it quite interesting. I enjoyed the book well enough, though I found the plot and characters a bit flat. The one character I liked died halfway through, and after that I was just reading to see how it ended. But I didn't give it up, so that says something.  

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Two timelines, but well woven together and quite easy to follow. In one a young woman's grandmother dies, leaving her a box of fabric flowers exquisitely embroidered and trimmed with pearls. Never having known her to sew, her granddaughter sets out to discover where they came from and why they were important to her. The other timeline has the grandmother as a young girl working for a design firm in London after the war. She and a friend are assigned to the team who will create the wedding gown for the upcoming nuptials of the young Princess Elizabeth, 

The title says it's a "novel of the royal wedding" but that's a little misleading. The story focuses on the lives of the two young women in the past and the present- day girl who is gradually uncovering her Grandmother's history. The wedding does come into it briefly but it's not a story about that specifically. It is definitely about the gown: how it came together from start to finish and the enormous amount of talent, effort, and time that went into it. I loved getting a look at the process from early concept to final completion of such an iconic gown. 

It's well written with believable characters and a good story. There was one plot twist that felt out of place, not the event itself, more the way it was presented. It seemed to come out of nowhere so suddenly that I almost heard that screeching record stop they use in movies. 

Overall, though, I liked this one. 

One Interesting, One Great, One Fun, and One Disappointing

 Interesting: An Astronaut's Guide to Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield

This was a book club selection, otherwise I don't think I would have picked it up. Though I find outer space and our attempts to go there fascinating, I am always a bit skeptical about authors writing guides to life. He has learned many things that he can use in his own life, but his experiences are far from typical and what has been successful in his own life would not work for all.

The first part of the book is a little dry, with a lot of lengthy job titles and training information. Some of it was interesting, but the really good stuff comes in the second half of the book when he's actually going to space and spending time on the International Space Station. That was nothing short of amazing to read. He includes many funny stories, but the one that stuck with me was his discovery that when you shake hands in space, where there is no gravity, your whole body will move up and down with your arm. That struck me as so funny when I first read it and now I keep picturing it and still laugh. Small things...

 It's easy to get caught up in the excitement because the author's own excitement fills every page. When he's talking about space he's an enthusiastic writer with the enviable ability to make you feel like you're there floating above the earth with him. Though I found the first part slow, the second part more than made up for it. 

Great: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What can I say? It's Dickens. I love his writing and I love the language of the period. 
His vivid story-telling puts you right there, in his time and place. He has a finely tuned sense of humor, opinions he is not shy about sharing, and a delightfully cheeky turn of phrase, as in the following:

"The Constables...were about the house for a week or two, and did pretty much what I have heard and read of like authorities doing in other such cases. They took up several obviously wrong people and they ran their heads very hard against wrong ideas, and persisted in trying to fit the circumstances to the ideas instead of trying to extract ideas from the circumstances." and "Mrs. Pocket was at home, and was in a little difficulty, on account of the baby's having been accommodated with a needle-case to keep him quiet...and more needles were missing than it could be regarded as quite wholesome for a patient of such tender years either to apply externally or to take as a tonic." 

This rags-to-riches-to-almost rags story has something in it to appeal to every reader: romance, suspense, crime, and hard won observations about friendship, family and what's really important. It's worth reading and reading again. And again.    

Fun: The Odyssey by Homer

I tried once before to get through this but lost interest somewhere in the middle. This time I listened to the audio book and it made all the difference. Maybe it was hearing the intensity in the reader's voice, I don't know, but it was fun, a word I never thought I'd use in conjunction with this book. I found it much easier to follow and to get involved in the story, a lot like listening to those old radio plays a few decades ago. The reader is an actor who makes the experience of listening an almost interactive experience, with your thoughts and emotions so affected by his that you understand him, you feel the confusion or anger or dismay he's putting into his performance.
 Like a Vulcan mind meld.....never mind. 

I could get addicted to audio books I think, though I have given up on a few when I found the reader more irritating than entertaining. This one was wonderfully narrated by Gordon Griffin who has over 800 others to his credit I was glad to find out. I think I'd listen to just about any story if he were the one to tell it. 

Disappointing: A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay


Set in Paris, it begins with Antoine Rey taking his sister Melanie for a surprise birthday trip back to their childhood vacation spot. On the way home Melanie tells Antoine she has remembered something about the night, many years ago, when their mother died. A moment later they are involved in an accident that lands her in the hospital and him sitting at her bedside hoping she'll survive. When she wakes up she can't remember her "secret" so Antoine sets out to uncover the truth, and tries to make sense of his own life in the process. A divorced father of three, he is still in love with his ex-wife and struggling to maintain relationships with his daughter and two sons. And he has only distant connections with his own father and family. 

I enjoy De Rosnay's writing but these characters did not appeal to me. It's hard to like a book when you don't like the people who inhabit the story, especially the main character. Again, it was an audio book, so I can't be sure if it was the narrator and the way he portrayed Antoine or if it was Antoine himself, but I found him dislikable, and a sort of sleazy, from the beginning. An even bigger disappointment was the "secret" itself. There was quite a build up to it but it turned out to be not much of anything. It seemed hardly worth all the effort put in to discovering it, and therefore hardly worth the effort of reading. After "Sarah's Key" and "The House I Loved", I expected more.  
 

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